The European Space Agency (ESA), alongside partners CNES and ArianeGroup, has provided an update on the progress of the Ariane 6 launcher. The Canopée ship will transport the rocket’s first and second stages from France and Germany, respectively. The first flight is scheduled for a launch window between June 15 and July 31, 2024.
The inaugural flight of the Ariane 6 will include several small rideshare payloads, such as the SpaceCase technology demonstrator and the small 1U ISTSAT CubeSat. Additional details about the payloads are expected to be released in February, with confirmed contributions from NASA.
During a visit to the factory facilities in France and Germany, representatives from NASASpaceflight had the opportunity to interview officials from the Ariane program and ESA Acting Director of Space Transportation, Toni Tolker-Nielsen.
The production of the first stage of the Ariane 6 rocket takes place in Les Mureaux, close to Paris. Unlike its predecessor, Ariane 5, which was vertically assembled, Ariane 6 is assembled horizontally. The factory already has a fully assembled first stage for the inaugural flight, with the Vulcain 2.1 engine integrated and the transport container prepared for the Canopée ship. The factory is also working on hydrogen tanks and parts for future flights.
The goal of the factory is to support twelve flights per year, which is in line with the turnaround time of the Canopée ship. Currently, there are approximately 30 launch contracts signed for Ariane 6, including Amazon’s Project Kuiper, Galileo, and the PLATO exoplanet telescope.
The Ariane 6 first stage features the Vulcain 2.1 hydrolox engine, which produces 1,370 kN of thrust. Potential future upgrades to Ariane 6, such as the Prometheus methalox engine, are being considered for the Ariane Next vehicle.
Prometheus is a reusable oxygen methane engine developed by ArianeGroup and ESA. It’s part of a future engine development plan for ESA and is also used in their Themis vertical takeoff and landing prototype for reusable rocket technology.
With regards to the first launch being a rideshare, ArianeGroup stated that it was a deliberate choice to invite innovators to propose payloads for Ariane 6. In the future, there is the potential to group multiple small missions together for a single heavy lift launch.
The second stage of Ariane 6 is assembled in Bremen, Germany. Unlike Ariane 5, Ariane 6 can relight its engine for deep space missions, allowing for direct launches to geostationary orbit (GEO). The upper stage also includes the addition of an auxiliary power unit (APU) for pressurizing tanks during flight and longer coasting times.
The boosters for Ariane 6 are made by Avio in Italy and can be configured with either two or four P120 rocket boosters. There are plans to upgrade the boosters to the P120C+, which will enhance performance.
Once assembly and testing are complete, the first and second stages of Ariane 6 will be shipped onboard the Canopée ship to the Guiana Space Center in Kourou. The rocket will be fully assembled horizontally before being moved to the launch pad. Integrated testing, such as a static fire on the pad, will not be performed after integration.
For the first flight, ESA will operate as the primary contractor, but Arianespace will take over operations for subsequent flights. Tolker-Nielsen emphasized that the development of Ariane 6 and Vega-C is intended to foster competition in Europe’s launch market, with plans for reusable launchers in the future.
The progress of the Ariane 6 program is a significant step forward for Europe’s space industry, ensuring independent access to space and paving the way for reusable launchers in the future. With a growing market and increased cadence, reusability is becoming economically viable and essential for sustainability.