First Flight: Ariane 6 carrier rocket successfully launched

Shortly after liftoff, cheers and applause erupted on the terraces of the European Space Station when the replacement of the boosters was announced. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), the microsatellites on the rocket were successfully placed into orbit one hour and six minutes later. ESA boss Joseph Aschbacher spoke about a “historic day for ESA and Europe”.

For ESA, the launch was an urgent triumphal moment: the predecessor Ariane 5 was last sent into space in July 2023; The tiny Vega-C rocket was on the ground after a false start. In addition, the launch signal for Ariane 6 was postponed several times. The situation was further aggravated by the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine: before that, the ESA was able to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets, but cooperation ceased.

In an interview with ORF in 2022, “We are dependent,” Aschbacher summed up the difficult situation for European space travel. “That’s why Ariane 6 is important for Europe, which must have completely independent access to space,” the Austrian said. US competitor SpaceX was also used to send satellites into space.

ESA

The successful launch of the Ariane 6 carrier rocket was already the breakthrough moment ESA urgently needed.

Already 30 flights have been booked

Success on Tuesday is very important for commercial success. As ESA said recently, there are already orders for 30 flights with the rocket. Ariane 6’s first commercial flight is scheduled for later this year.

The rocket is significantly cheaper than its predecessors. It can launch satellites into different orbits and thus bring different constellations into space. The rocket may be equipped with two or four boosters, which are responsible for the launch thrust, and can carry satellites weighing up to 11.5 tonnes. The height of the rocket is about 60 meters and its weight is about 900 tons with maximum payload. Liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fuel the rocket’s main stage engine.

Illustration of the Ariane 6 rocket in space

ESA/D. Ducrose

Ariane 6 will launch satellites for Europe in the future

Expert doubts about competitiveness

But there are doubts about how contemporary Ariane 6 really is. According to Aschbacher, it meets current challenges and adapts to future ambitions. However, space expert Martin Tajmar from TU Dresden told dpa: “You can forget about it.” He mentions a product of SpaceX: “In 2015, the Falcon 9 rocket successfully landed again for the first time. Reusable space travel, of course everyone else is completely old now.

But the long decision-making processes at ESA can’t compare to the way SpaceX works. According to ESA, the uncertainty of such a large project involving 13 European countries, including Austria, contributed to the delay. France provided the largest share of Ariane 6 funding among ESA countries, with Germany the second most important donor country with 20 percent.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched

Reuters/Joe Skipper

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has marked a breakthrough in “reusable spaceflight,” an expert says.

The most important thing about Ariane 6 is that it restores access to space, which Tajmar says was one of the original missions of European spaceflight. It’s meant to provide an alternative, albeit not a cheap one. “It’s a really tough environment.”

Amazon also relies on Ariane

In terms of numbers, they lag behind the American competition. Ariane 6 is designed for twelve launches per year, says ArianeSpace, which is responsible for marketing and operating the rocket. By comparison: SpaceX had more than ten launches with the Falcon 9 rocket in May alone. Even member states of the European Meteorological Satellite Agency (EUMETSAT) decided not to put the Meteosat MTG-S1 weather satellite on board. Ariane 6 and Ariane 6’s flight, rather than a Falcon 9.

18 of the 30 orders so far have come from US internet giant Amazon: to put satellites into orbit for the Ariane Kuiper programme. The project is intended to enable satellite-based internet access – thus competing with Musk’s SpaceX subsidiary Starlink. “This is completely unprecedented for a rocket that hasn’t flown yet,” Arianespace president Stephen Israel told AFP.

Austrian technology included

Ariane 6 also has Austrian know-how and technology. The country’s largest aerospace supplier, Beyond Gravity Austria (formerly RUAG Space), headquartered in Vienna, provided the high-temperature thermal insulation for the new system’s rocket engines and the control mechanism for the rocket upper stage, which ensures precise alignment. Engine – more about this at wien.ORF.at. Several companies participated in the project, including Styria and Lower Austria at Stiermark.ORF.at and noe.ORF.at.

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