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

Validation testing for ESA’s new Ariane 6 launch vehicle is well underway, with recent tests focusing on the upper stage engines. These tests involved firing the Vinci engine and a smaller Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), simulating their operation during a flight. The tests took place at the German Aerospace Center DLR’s engine test centre in Lampoldshausen, Germany.

The Vinci engine, powered by liquid hydrogen and oxygen, is capable of being stopped and restarted multiple times. This feature allows for the placement of satellites into different orbits and the de-orbiting of the upper stage to prevent it from becoming hazardous debris in space. The APU plays an important role in enabling the Vinci engine to restart in space by maintaining adequate pressure in the fuel tanks and preventing bubbles in the fuel lines. Unlike the previous system that relied on large quantities of tanked helium, the APU uses small amounts of liquid hydrogen and oxygen from the main tanks.

Further tests are scheduled, including a final hot-fire test, to qualify the Ariane 6 upper stage for different types of missions and degraded conditions. These tests will provide valuable insights into the flexibility and reliability of this launch system.

Toni Tolker-Nielsen, ESA Director of Space Transportation, expressed gratitude to the partners involved in conducting the tests, including DLR and Ariane 6 prime contractor ArianeGroup. Tolker-Nielsen highlighted the significance of Ariane 6’s upper stage, particularly its reignitable Vinci engine, which will greatly enhance launch capabilities. The successful results from these tests instill confidence in the system’s ability to meet all mission requirements.

In addition to the tests conducted at Lampoldshausen, simultaneous tests are taking place at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. These tests focus on Ariane 6’s lower core stage engine, Vulcain 2.1, which has been adapted from Ariane 5’s Vulcain 2. The purpose of these tests is to simulate an actual launch and ensure that the rocket and ground infrastructure work seamlessly together as a complete system.

Ariane 6 is a groundbreaking design that aims to replace the Ariane 5 as Europe’s heavy-lift launch system. Its capabilities to reach Earth orbit and deep space are essential for Europe’s vision of space-enabled navigation, Earth observation, scientific research, and security services. The Ariane 6 program is owned and managed by ESA, with ArianeGroup as the prime contractor and Arianespace as the launch operator. France’s space agency, CNES, operates Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, which has been the home of Ariane launchers since the first liftoff in 1979.

The progress made in these tests signifies a significant step forward in Europe’s space exploration capabilities. The dedication and expertise of the individuals involved demonstrate the collaborative efforts of ESA and its member states, known as #SpaceTeamEurope, in realizing their vision of space exploration and innovation. Exciting times lie ahead as Ariane 6 continues its journey towards revolutionizing Europe’s launch capabilities.