Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket makes its inaugural flight

Ariane 6, Europe’s new heavy-lift rocket, made its inaugural flight from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana yesterday (July 9, 2024).

ESA - S. Corvaja

Ariane 6 is the latest in Europe's Ariane rocket series, taking over from the retired Ariane 5, and features a modular design that can launch missions from low-Earth orbit and farther out into deep space.

The inaugural flight, designated VA262, was a demonstration flight to showcase the capabilities of Ariane 6 in escaping Earth's gravity and operating in space, though it carried multiple sets of satellites on board.

At 21:06 BST, one hour after liftoff, the first set of satellites were released from the upper stage and placed into an orbit 600km above Earth. Satellites and experiments from various space agencies, companies, research institutes, universities and young professionals were included on the flight.

In addition to the rocket, the liftoff demonstrated the functioning of the launch pad and operations on the ground at Europe's Spaceport. The new custom-built dedicated launch zone was built by France's space agency CNES and allows for a faster turnover of Ariane launches.

Ariane 6, built by prime contractor and design authority ArianeGroup, was also set to perform a demonstration in which its Vinci engine would restart using its novel APU (auxiliary propulsion unit).

The European Space Agency (ESA) said that this restart capability will allow Ariane 6 to drop off multiple passengers into different orbits on future flights and deorbit itself through Earth’s atmosphere at the end of its mission, to ensure it does not become space debris.

During the demonstration, Ariane 6 was meant to release two re-entry capsules as it entered Earth's atmosphere for a clean disposal to burn up harmlessly, leaving no space debris in orbit.

However, the APU fired once, allowing the upper stage to release a second set of satellites, but then failed after a second ignition. Ultimately, the Vinci engine did not start, so this specific demonstration mission was not possible.

The upper stage of the vessel was placed in an orbit that ESA said does not represent more of a hazard than comparable pieces of hardware. They added that the capsules stayed aboard.

In a post-flight Q&A session, Martin Sion, CEO of ArianeGroup, said that the team do not yet know why the APU stopped, as they hadn’t yet obtained the data to analyse the fault.

Despite this, ESA declared the launch a triumph, primarily because it matched the performance of the Ariane 5 launcher. The next Ariane 6 is planned for launch this year on its first commercial flight under Arianespace as operator and launch service provider.

In a statement, Martin Sion, CEO of ArianeGroup, said: “With the successful first flight of Ariane 6, the European space industry has moved into a new era. This historic launch demonstrates the unfailing commitment of our teams and partners, whom I would like to thank warmly for this success, which reflects on the entire European industry.

“Seeing Europe’s new launcher lift off into space marks the culmination of an outstanding technical and technological adventure, and the beginning of a long history of Ariane 6 operations. The next flight models are already in production and the stages of the second model will be shipped to the Guiana Space Centre this autumn for the first commercial flight of Ariane 6.”