Europe’s latest rocket launches into space

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Europe’s first heavy-lift rocket in nearly 30 years blasted into space on Tuesday, promising to end a crisis over the region’s ability to deploy its own satellites into orbit.

Ariane 6Four years behind schedule and heavily subsidized to ensure it can compete with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, took off in clear skies from a launch pad near Kourou in French Guiana at around 4pm local time.

The Mission The launch was deemed a success by the European Space Agency, which oversees the Ariane program, despite a problem with the rocket’s auxiliary power unit (APU) failing to ignite during the final stage of flight.

That means the rocket’s upper stage cannot be brought back to Earth in a controlled re-entry as planned. Instead, it will continue to orbit the Earth for years. Eventually, it will be pulled into Earth’s atmosphere, where it will partially burn up.

Josef Aschbacher, CEO of ESAjubilant after Ariane 6 launched the satellites into orbit about an hour into the three-hour mission.

“We’re making history right now,” Aschbacher said. “There’s still a little bit of work to do, but … it’s a beautiful moment.” Later, after the mission ended, he said the inaugural flight put Ariane 6 on track to increase the number of launches next year. The rocket is expected to fly at least nine times a year by 2026.

“This will put Europe back in space,” said Aschbacher.

Technicians and engineers in the Guiana Space Center’s Jupiter control room, many of whom have spent decades working on the program, applauded as the rocket flew through a series of milestones.

Most importantly, it was demonstrated that the Vinci engine that powered the rocket’s upper stage stopped and restarted to send the satellite into different orbits about 600km above the ground.

The launch will restore Europe’s independent access to space, where nations are competing for strategic and economic advantage.

But questions remain about how well the Ariane 6 will compete with Musk’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket, or his much larger Starship, which completed a successful test flight into space this year.

Last year, the 13 ESA member states that helped fund Ariane 6 agreed to a €1 billion grant over three years, on top of the programme’s estimated €4 billion development costs.

Engineers and managers monitor the Ariane 6 rocket at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou
Engineers and managers monitor the Ariane 6 rocket at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou © Jody Amiet/AFP/Getty Images

European concerns about sovereign access to space have grown since the Ariane 5 was retired last year. Delays in the Ariane 6 meant it could not take over from its predecessor, while cooperation with Russia’s Soyuz programme collapsed following the country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Italy’s new Vega-C rocket has also been delayed due to technical problems.

Europe has been forced to turn to SpaceX to launch four key satellites, including two for the Galileo navigation system, while four more will fly with the US company later this year.

Europe is therefore rethinking how it cooperates on launch programmes.

Last year, ESA, whose 22 member states include the UK and Switzerland, launched a competition to buy micro-launch services from the private sector, some of which could eventually win business from Ariane.

Last week, German rocket startup Rocket Factory Augsburg described the Ariane 6 as “overpriced” and said its development “at taxpayers’ expense showed that a change was needed”.

But even RFA welcomed the Ariane 6’s flight as a landmark moment for Europe.

“Europe has finally regained its autonomy in space and can once again play an active role in shaping global space tourism,” said co-founder Jörn Spurmann.

Ariane is expected to make its first operational flight later this year. It is scheduled for 29 launches, 18 of which will be for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband satellite constellation starting next year.

The Ariane 6 program has been criticized because the rocket is not reusable, unlike the Falcon 9.

However, manufacturer ArianeGroup and launch service provider Arianespace hope that the rocket’s versatility will give them an edge over SpaceX.


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