An almost complete success for the maiden launch of the Ariane 6 rocket

The Ariane 6 rocket blasting off in its maiden flight (Image courtesy ESA)
The Ariane 6 rocket blasting off in its maiden flight (Image courtesy ESA)

A few hours ago the Ariane 6 rocket was launched from the base in French Guiana and conducted its maiden mission in the version with two side boosters. Over the course of approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes, the various phases of the flight were conducted, which among other things tested the great innovation of this rocket which consists of the possibility of restarting the Vinci engine which powers the upper stage. This new possibility allows it to place satellites in different orbits in the same mission.

In this maiden launch, nine satellites were deployed. However, a problem with the Auxiliary Propulsion Unit (APU) led to a failed burn after almost two hours of flight and consequently to the failure to deploy the two capsules for the reentry test. In short, the success is incomplete and there will be an investigation to understand the reason for the problem.

At the end of the mission, test maneuvers were planned to push the upper stage to its limits to assess its stability. Two capsules were supposed to separate from the upper stage to test heat shields when landing in the Pacific Ocean. The last maneuver was supposed to obtain the so-called deorbiting of the upper stage in order to make it return to the ground to disintegrate in the atmosphere and avoid adding potentially dangerous space waste into orbit. In this case, however, the upper stage remained in orbit.

The Ariane 6 rocket represents the latest evolution of the heavy launchers from Arianespace, the subsidiary of ArianeGroup, ESA’s contractor in the production of European rockets. The Ariane 5 was a very valid heavy launcher but also limited in its possibilities in a market that requires flexibility due to the growth in requests for launches in different orbits of satellites that can be very small.

The Ariane 6 is aimed to be more flexible than its predecessor, with configurations with two or four side boosters, called Ariane 62 and Ariane 64 respectively. The boosters use the P120C engine already in use for the Vega C rocket. Most importantly, the ability to restart the upper-stage engine to place satellites in different orbits during the same mission was added. To achieve this flexibility, the Vinci hydrogen/oxygen engine was developed.

Now we will have to see if the APU anomaly will cause delays in the next Ariane 6 launch, scheduled later in 2024. The development timeline of the Ariane 6 already took longer than predicted, resulting in budget overruns. The controversy also arose because the new rocket isn’t reusable and is therefore already considered old by many commentators. However, it’s important for Europe to have its own launcher, especially after the end of the partnership with Russia, which led to the end of the use of Soyuz rockets. For some missions, ESA was forced to turn to SpaceX but now it will be possible to use a European rocket again.

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