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Europe celebrates the maiden flight of Ariane 6 as it regains independent access to space

Europes new Ariane 6 rocket completed its maiden flight

Last night, the spaceport in French Guyana saw a maiden flight of the highly anticipated Ariane 6 rocket, a successor to Europe’s Ariane 5 which was retired last summer. The launch was successful, although not everything went according to plan.

The Ariane 6 took to the sky years behind schedule and exactly a year after Ariane 5’s last flight. The launch was hugely important for the European Space Agency (ESA) and the whole European spaceflight industry, as it gave Europe back independent access to space.

It was not just Ariane 5 that was taken out of service, but also the smaller rocket launcher Vega-C which suffered technical issues and had to be grounded for a long time. With Ariane 6’s maiden mission and Vega-C’s return-to-flight mission now planned for November, it gives ESA peace of mind – at least momentarily.

Ariane 6 is a two-stage rocket designed to carry two (A62) or four (A64) additional strap-on solid rocket boosters. The spacecraft is 63 meters (207 ft.) tall and the less powerful A62 variant that flew yesterday can carry ten metric tons to the low Earth orbit (LEO).

Apart from some dummy weight, onboard Ariane 6 were several fixed experimental devices and smallsats including, among others, tiny gamma-ray bursts observatory GRBBeta (2U CubeSat) that also hosts the smallest UV telescope in space with the size of just two centimeters.

Most of the spacecraft were released a little over an hour after the lift-off, at which point the mission was deemed successful. However, the following tech demo of powering up the so-called Auxillary Propulsion Unit (APU) and reigniting the upper-stage Vinci engine failed. As a result, the upper stage missed its intended trajectory and canceled the planned deorbit burn. Also, the last bits of the payload – two reentry capsules – didn’t separate from the spacecraft to minimize the space debris caused by the failure.

The payload of Ariane 6s maiden flight

ArianeGroup, the primary contractor for the rocket, said during the post-flight press conference that it does not know the cause that led to the issue. An analysis and investigation will be conducted. What’s more important, though, is that the complications will not affect the upcoming flights.

ESA and ArianeGroup explained that the failure happened during the demo phase when testing the upper stage’s behavior and ability to reignite in the microgravity environment. However, this capability is mission-specific, thus it would not cause a delay in missions that do not utilize this maneuver as part of their flight profile.

The second flight of Ariane 6 is currently scheduled for December and the planned ramp-up of operations consists of six more flights in 2025.

This will be crucial for several customers eagerly expecting the Ariane 6 to carry their payloads to orbit. One of them is Jeff Bezos and Amazon’s Kuiper constellation which wants to compete with Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service.

To comply with the FCC license, Amazon has to build half of the constellation – 1,618 satellites – by summer 2026. Ariane 6 is one of four rockets contracted by Bezos to carry this duty. In total, Amazon bought 18 flights of the more powerful A64 variant.

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