Ariane 6’s Upper Stage Faces a Challenging Test: Trial by Fire

In a significant milestone for European space exploration, the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully conducted a test of its all-new Ariane 6 launch vehicle on 1 September 2023. The test, which took place at the German aerospace agency DLR’s engine test centre in Lampoldshausen, Germany, involved firing the vehicle’s two upper stage engines to simulate their operation during a launch.

The upper stage engine of the Ariane 6, known as Vinci, is an important component that enables the vehicle to place satellites into different orbits and de-orbit the upper stage to prevent it from becoming hazardous debris in space. The Vinci engine, which is fed by a combination of liquid hydrogen and oxygen, can be stopped and restarted multiple times, providing the necessary flexibility for various mission requirements.

To ensure that the Vinci engine can restart in space, a smaller Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) plays a vital role. The APU maintains adequate pressure in the fuel tanks and prevents bubbles in the fuel lines, allowing the Vinci engine to function properly. Unlike its predecessor, which relied on large quantities of tanked helium, the APU uses small amounts of liquid hydrogen and oxygen from the main tanks.

The development of the Ariane 6 launch vehicle marks a significant advancement for Europe’s heavy-lift launch system. Designed to succeed the Ariane 5, this new vehicle offers autonomous capabilities for reaching Earth orbit and deep space. It serves as the foundation for Europe’s vision of space-enabled navigation, Earth observation, scientific research, and security services.

The successful test of the Ariane 6 launch vehicle is a testament to the collaborative efforts of thousands of talented individuals working in ESA’s 22 member states. Known as #SpaceTeamEurope, these professionals have dedicated themselves to making Europe a leader in space exploration and technology.

The ESA owns and manages the Ariane 6 program, defining its performance objectives. ArianeGroup serves as the prime contractor, responsible for the design and manufacturing of the vehicle. Arianespace, a launch service provider, operates as the launch operator. Additionally, France’s space agency, CNES, manages Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, which has been the home of Ariane launchers since the inaugural liftoff in 1979.

The successful test of the Ariane 6 launch vehicle brings Europe one step closer to its goals in space exploration and technology. With its advanced capabilities and the dedication of the #SpaceTeamEurope, Europe is set to continue making significant contributions to space science and exploration.