ESA's Ariane 6 launch pushed to 2024 due to engine glitches

Europe faces a launcher crisis as it loses access to Soyuz and Vega C rockets.
Rizwan Choudhury
Ariane 6 test model central core arriving at ELA-4 for combined tests, following transfer from the assembly building.
Ariane 6 test model central core arriving at ELA-4 for combined tests, following transfer from the assembly building.

Credits: ESA 

The European Space Agency (ESA) has confirmed that the first launch of its new rocket, Ariane 6, will not take place this year, as reported earlier. The agency said the rocket's maiden flight had been postponed to 2024 after facing some technical issues in engine tests.

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher announced the delay in a LinkedIn post on August 8. He said that the agency and its partners ArianeGroup, Arianespace, and CNES will conduct engine tests in the coming weeks before finalizing the launch date.

The Ariane 6 rocket has been under development for several years and was initially scheduled to fly in 2020. However, the project faced multiple delays due to technical challenges, budget constraints, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the major hurdles was a countdown test of the rocket’s core stage engine, Vulcain 2.1, at the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana on July 18. The test was supposed to end with a brief engine firing, but it was aborted due to some measurements exceeding preset limits. The test was later canceled because of a shortage of liquid oxygen propellant.

In a dedicated press release, ESA has announced rescheduling the countdown test to August 29, following a two-week hiatus during the summer period. This break was taken to allow for personnel rest and repairs in a basin employed for the controlled disposal of surplus hydrogen. Simultaneously, Vinci's testing of the upper-stage engine at a facility in Lampoldshausen, Germany, encountered delays in late July due to software irregularities. ESA has affirmed that this testing will be conducted no later than September 1.

ESA's Ariane 6 launch pushed to 2024 due to engine glitches
Work is ongoing at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana to validate the performance of the Ariane 6 launch vehicle and its ground infrastructure as a complete system.

After conducting these tests, the European Space Agency (ESA) has announced its plans for a prolonged static-fire test of the Vulcain 2.1 engine at the Kourou spaceport. This test is currently set for September 26. ESA emphasized that the disclosure of the inaugural Ariane 6 launch date will be contingent upon the success of this upcoming engine test.

Ariane 6 payload

On its inaugural flight, Ariane 6 is slated to transport several small satellite payloads, one of which is the NASA-backed cubesat known as the Cubesat Radio Interferometry Experiment (CURIE). A visual aid showcased during a NASA smallsat town hall session at the 37th Annual Small Satellite Conference held on August 7 outlined that CURIE's launch aboard an Ariane 6 is anticipated not before April 1, 2024.

The Ariane 6 Launcher Task Force comprises senior leadership from the European Space Agency (ESA), the French space agency CNES (responsible for the launch base), the primary contractor for the launcher system ArianeGroup, and the launch service provider Arianespace.

Launcher crisis and SpaceX's Falcon 9

The postponement of the Ariane 6 launch has contributed to what Aschbacher termed a "launcher crisis" in Europe. The concluding flight of Europe's Ariane 5 rocket took place on July 5, and the Vega C rocket remains inactive due to a launch mishap in December 2022. Additionally, Europe's utilization of Russia's Soyuz rocket, launching from Kourou, was interrupted following the Ukraine invasion last year. Consequently, this situation has led to a temporary loss of Europe's autonomous space access capability.

The European Space Agency (ESA) had to resort to SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch services for several projects to address this challenge. Noteworthy among these are the Euclid space telescope, which effectively launched on July 1, and the Hera asteroid mission scheduled for 2024. Additionally, ESA intends to enlist a Falcon 9 for its EarthCARE Earth science mission in 2024. Furthermore, ESA, in conjunction with the European Commission, is evaluating the possibility of deploying Falcon 9 rockets for launching Galileo navigation satellites.

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