Europe’s new heavy lift Ariane 6 rocket has successfully completed a key milestone on its path to launch, conducting an eight and a half minute test firing of its main stage engines on Thursday. The test paves the way for the rocket’s maiden flight in the first half of 2023, marking a new era for European access to space.
Test firing proves Ariane 6 design
The test took place on November 24th at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, where Ariane rockets are launched. During the test, Ariane 6’s Vulcain 2.1 main engine and two solid rocket boosters were ignited as they will be during launch, while the rocket was held down on the pad.
Over 500 sensors on the rocket measured everything from vibrations and acoustics to temperatures and pressures as the engines fired. Analysis of this data over the coming weeks will confirm that the rocket’s first stage performed as expected over the full duration of a real launch.
Ariane 6 first stage engine firing durations:
- Vulcain 2.1 main engine: 8 minutes 30 seconds
- Solid rocket boosters: 2 minutes 20 seconds
ESA’s Ariane 6 program manager, Philippe Baptiste, was delighted with the test results:
This test marks a major milestone achievement for Ariane 6, taking this new launch vehicle one important step closer to its maiden flight
The test demonstrated not only Ariane 6’s engines, but also the compatibility of the rocket, its launch pad systems, and the modified mobile gantry structure that provides access to the vehicle on the pad.
Maiden flight to deploy satellites in first half of 2023
With the hot fire test complete, teams can now finish preparations for Ariane 6’s debut launch.
Baptiste outlined that the test data must be analyzed in full before launch can proceed:
Once we have been through all the data from the sensors, Ariane 6 will be cleared for liftoff on its maiden flight, which is currently scheduled for the first semester of 2023
The rocket’s first mission, called Flight VA251, will carry a payload of several small satellites into orbit. This will help validate the rocket’s capabilities and demonstrate that Ariane 6 can accommodate multiple satellite deployments per launch.
Further Ariane 6 launches planned for 2023 include:
- Flight VA252: Additional rideshare mission with small satellites
- Flight VA253: Deployment of first Galileo navigation satellites for Europe’s Galileo constellation
- Flight VA254: Launch of the CHEOPS exoplanet studying satellite
These early flights will allow ESA and ArianeGroup to gain operational experience ahead of Ariane 6 taking over launches of large geostationary satellites later in 2023 or 2024.
Ariane 6 ushers in new era for European rockets
The inaugural launch of Ariane 6 has been eagerly anticipated across Europe’s space industry. The new rocket promises major improvements in cost and flexibility compared to the veteran Ariane 5 vehicle that it replaces.
Ariane 6 designed for affordability
A key design driver for Ariane 6 was reducing launch costs compared to Ariane 5. This was achieved via:
- Simplified manufacturing and streamlined production processes
- Increased use of automated rocket assembly and modern construction techniques like 3D printing
- Shared elements between the rocket’s two and four booster variants
- Lower cost materials such as steel replacing aluminum in some structures
The Ariane 6 solid rocket motors are also half the cost per unit compared to Ariane 5 boosters. These changes make Ariane 6 launches up to 40% cheaper than Ariane 5 for institutional customers like ESA.
Flexibility for diverse satellite markets
Whereas Ariane 5 solely served launches of heavy geostationary satellites, Ariane 6 introduces options better tailored for today’s launch demand across a range of satellite sizes:
- The two booster Ariane 62 variant can carry up to 8 tons to orbit
- The Heavy lift Ariane 64 with 4 boosters has capacity exceeding 20 tons
This flexible design allows Ariane 6 to take on commercial launch orders that Ariane 5 could not address cost effectively.
ArianeGroup CEO André-Hubert Roussel highlighted Ariane 6’s wider market access:
Ariane 6 has already won over 20 launch contracts in just 4 years since its development started. This commercial success recognizes that it delivers exactly what satellite operators around the globe need
Outlook: Ariane 6 ensuring Europe’s continued space access
With its versatility to launch satellites big and small paired with lower costs, Ariane 6 provides a strong foundation for European access to space in coming years. Successful qualification through tests like the hot fire sets the stage for regular Ariane 6 launch operations before year’s end.
Steady flights starting in 2023 will validate Ariane 6’s design and allow ESA and industry to refine the vehicle further. Through the 2020s, Ariane 6 will provide reliability for European institutional missions while offering flexibility and value to attract commercial launch business.
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