Astronomy

Ariane 6 is Coming Together

The European Space Agency (ESA)’s next generation heavy lift rocket is just months away from its first flight, and its major components are now being assembled for launch at the Vehicle Assembly Building in Kourou, French Guiana.

The new rocket is Europe’s upgrade to the retired Ariane 5, which flew for the last time in 2023. With a large payload fairing and lift capacity, Ariane 6 will be able to carry seriously heavy satellites (or multiple smaller ones). The heavy lift capability of the Ariane 6 is achieved using Hydrolox engines on both the first and second stages, assisted by up to four solid rocket boosters, enabling it to bring up to 11,000kg to geostationary transfer orbit.

The Ariane 6’s upper stage features the capability to relight its engine multiple times, giving it plenty of flexibility in the types of missions it can carry out, and improving the precision of the orbits it can reach. That makes it useful for both interplanetary missions and for unique orbital requirements around Earth.

Part of the first Ariane 6 rocket inside the Vehicle Assembly Building, Kourou, French Guiana. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/Arianegroup.

What it won’t be is reusable.

Ariane 6 is an expendable rocket, bringing critics to wonder if it can keep up with notable competitors pursuing reusability like SpaceX. But Ariane 6 has different capabilities and caters to different launch parameters than SpaceX, giving it a market share that the Falcon Heavy isn’t tuned for. Perhaps more importantly, independent access to space is a priority for Europe, making Ariane 6 a strategic imperative as much as a technological or competitive advancement. Still, Ariane 6 may not remain ESA’s workhorse rocket long-term – they are already investigating reusable alternatives that should come onto the scene in the 2030s.

The rocket stages themselves aren’t the only place where ESA can make eco-and-budget-friendly innovations, and some changes are happening now. The support and logistics infrastructure for the Ariane 6, for example, includes shipping the rocket stages aboard the Canopée, a wind-assisted hybrid cargo ship that can cut emissions by more than 20% – up to 30% depending on its speed – compared to a conventionally powered ship.

the Canopée, arriving in French Guiana in February, carrying the first Ariane 6 rocket for launch later this summer. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/Arianegroup/Optique Vidéo du CSG – S. Martin.

The Canopée delivered the first Ariane 6 to Kourou last month, arriving at port after a 10-day, 7,000km journey from mainland Europe in February.

The rocket now being prepared for flight within the vehicle assembly building will go vertical on the pad in the coming months.

Ariane 6’s first flight is set for no earlier than June 15. It will carry out a rideshare mission bringing multiple small spacecraft into orbit.

After that, the vehicle will have a steady launch cadence, with a series of flights scheduled for 2025 to carry upgraded satellites for Europe’s Galileo constellation (an independent GPS system). There are also plans to launch several deep space missions in the next few years, including ESA’s exoplanet hunting telescope PLATO, components of the Mars Sample Return infrastructure, and ESA’s Comet Interceptor mission.

“Ariane 6 stages having a BAL,” ESA.

Scott Alan Johnston

Scott Alan Johnston is a science writer/editor at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, a contributor at Universe Today, and a historian of science. He is the author of "The Clocks are Telling Lies," which tells the story of the early days of global timekeeping, when 19th-century astronomers and engineers struggled to organize time in a newly interconnected world. You can follow Scott on Twitter @ScottyJ_PhD

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