European rocket takes off for the first time

by Jonathan Amos, @BBCAmos, Science Correspondent
An Ariane 6 rocket lifts off from the launch pad at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, July 9, 2024.France Press agency

Europe’s new giant rocket Ariane 6 has successfully taken off on its maiden flight.

The vehicle took off from the launch pad in A plane took off from French Guiana at around 16:00 local time (19:00 GMT) on a demonstration mission to put a constellation of satellites into orbit.

The crew on the ground in Koro applauded as the rocket rose into the sky.

Developed at a cost of €4bn (£3.4bn), the Ariane 6 is a powerful rocket that will give European governments and companies access to space independently of the rest of the world.

It has already accumulated a number of launch contracts, but there are concerns that its design may limit its future prospects.

Like its predecessor, the Ariane 5, the new model is expendable—a new rocket is needed for each mission, while the latest American vehicles are built to be fully or partially reusable.

However, European space officials believe the Ariane 6 rocket is capable of finding a home of its own.

“This is a great moment,” said ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher.

“Everyday life today really depends on information from satellites, from telecommunications and Earth observation to weather forecasting and disaster management,” he told BBC News. “It is inconceivable that Europe would not have guaranteed independent access to space.”

Schematic diagram of the two versions of the Ariane 6 rocket.

On the surface, the Phone 6 looks very similar to the old Phone 5, but under the skin, it takes advantage of modern manufacturing techniques (3D printing, friction welding, augmented reality design, etc.) that should lead to faster and cheaper production.

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The Ariane 6 rocket will operate in two configurations:

  • The 62 will feature two solid-fuel side boosters to lift medium-sized payloads.
  • The “64” will have four attachable boosters to lift the heaviest satellites on the market.

The core stage is completed by a second, or upper, stage, which will place the payloads into precise orbits high above the Earth.

This stage can be stopped and restarted multiple times, which is useful when launching large batches of satellites into a constellation or network. The ability to re-ignite also allows the stage to pull itself back to Earth, so it doesn’t become a piece of residual space debris.

Tuesday’s mission used an Ariane 62 rocket. The rocket will climb to an altitude of 580 kilometers before beginning to unload its free payloads.

It’s a mix of university and commercial spacecraft. It includes two capsules that will attempt to survive a fiery fall through the atmosphere before landing in the Pacific Ocean.

One of the capsules, called Nix Bikini, is a small-scale prototype of a Franco-German company that eventually aims to develop a spacecraft that can ferry supplies and people to and from space stations in Earth’s orbit.

Ariane 6 vs Falcon 9

Inaugural flights are always risky occasions. It is not uncommon for a new rocket design to fail.

The Ariane 5 spacecraft famously exploded 37 seconds after liftoff from Earth on its first flight in 1996. The loss was attributed to a control software error.

But a modified rocket then came back to dominate the commercial launch market for the world’s largest satellites, a dominance that was only broken in the 2000s by American entrepreneur Elon Musk and his reusable Falcon 9 rockets.

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Falcon’s flight prices and fares undercut Ariane 5’s competitiveness.

ESA artist's impression of the Nix Bikini capsule returning to EarthEuropean Space Agency

Artwork: The Exploration Company’s Nyx Bikini capsule is a small-scale reentry demonstration.

Europe is moving toward reuse, but the technologies needed won’t be in service until the 2030s. Meanwhile, Mr. Musk is offering bigger missiles This promises to further reduce launch costs.

Thus, Ariane-6 enters a challenging environment.

“We can all have our own opinions,” said Lucia Linares, who heads ESA’s space transportation strategy. “What I can confirm is that we have a full order book.”

“I think the word here is directed to the customers: they said that Ariane-6 is the solution to their needs.”

ARIANEGROUP Vulcain-2 engine running on test standAriangroup

The Ariane 6 rocket’s core stage engine burns a mixture of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

There are contracts to launch a rocket that will carry it with it for the first three years of its operation. These contracts include 18 launches for another American billionaire, Jeff Bezos, who wants to build a group of internet satellites called “Kuiper.”

European officials aim to launch the Ariane 6 rocket about once a month.

If this rate of flight can be achieved, the rocket must be able to stabilize itself, said Pierre Lionnet of space consultancy ASD Eurospace.

“First, we need to ensure that there is enough demand from European customers – European institutions. Then Ariane needs to win a few commercial customers besides Kuiper. That would give it a market,” he told BBC News.

“But it’s about pricing. If the price of the Falcon 9 is systematically undercutting the price of the Ariane 6, there will be a problem.”

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Ariane 6 is a project of 13 ESA member states, led by France (56%) and Germany (21%). The 13 partners have promised subsidies of up to €340m (£295m) per year to support the early phase of Ariane 6’s exploitation.

The UK was a leading player in the early European launch programme, and remains a member state of the European Space Agency, but its direct involvement in Ariane ended when the Ariane 4 model was retired in 2003.

Some British companies continue to supply components on a commercial basis, and some spacecraft built in Britain will almost certainly continue to fly on Ariane rockets.

Reuters Starship rocket launch in June 2024Reuters

Elon Musk is currently working on developing larger reusable rockets.

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