ESA to set Ariane 6 target launch date after key engine test

"We are on a good track. We have stabilized the schedule. The tests are looking really good," ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher explained in a press briefing.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of Ariane 6.
An artist's impression of Ariane 6.

ESA / D. Ducros 

The long-delayed debut launch of Ariane 6 may be just a few months away.

The European Space Agency aims to set a launch period for the Ariane 6 in October, with a view to seeing the rocket's debut flight take place "not too late" into 2024, a report from SpaceNews reveals.

At a press briefing, ESA officials and partners said the rough launch dates are likely to be announced after a pair of static fire engine tests on the Ariane 6 rocket's core stage on the launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana.

Arianespace's road to "flight-ready" qualification

The first of the static fire tests is scheduled for today, September 5, and it will last about four seconds. The second test will take place on October 3 and it will last 470 seconds.

If both tests are successful, the ESA officials noted, the Ariane 6 will have "flight-ready" qualification for its core stage.

According to ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher, those tests are key to setting a launch date for Ariane 6. "We will then be in a position to define a launch period for Ariane 6," he explained, "which we will announce to you after these series of tests have been conducted."

However, when asked, Aschbacher stopped short of confirming Ariane 6 would launch in the first half of next year. "We are on a good track. We have stabilized the schedule. The tests are looking really good," he explained. "I think the chances, if everything goes perfect, are pretty good that it’s not too late in the next year, but there are still a lot of unknowns ahead of us."

There is no guarantee, of course, that engine tests will go well. The four-second test was originally scheduled for July, but it has been scrubbed twice due to technical issues.

In September, though, Arianespace did perform a successful hot firing test of Ariane 6's upper stage at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) site in Lampoldshausen.

Ariane 6, Vulcan Centaur, and New Glenn

Ariane 6 is the successor to Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket, which recently launched the European Space Agency's Jupiter JUICE mission.

Last year, the ESA announced that it expected the first launch of Ariane 6 – which was once slated for 2020 – to take place in the fourth quarter of 2023. The rocket's development has been hit by delays, though, leaving Europe without an operational launch vehicle for the time being following the final launch of Ariane 5 in July.

Arianespace reportedly has 28 Ariane 6 launches scheduled. Its largest customer is Amazon, which has contracted 18 launches for its Project Kuiper constellation as part of "the largest commercial procurement of launch vehicles in history."

Project Kuiper is Amazon's Starlink-rivaling satellite internet service. The delivery giant faces a July 2026 deadline as part of its Federal Communications Commission license to launch half of its 3,236 satellites. It has contracted launches with Ariane 6, United Launch Alliance's Vulcan Centaur, and Blue Origin's New Glenn. To date, none of these have reached orbit.

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