European Space Agency (ESA) schedules Ariane 6 launch for summer of 2024

The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that the long-awaited maiden flight of the Ariane 6 rocket is scheduled to take place between June 15 and July 31, 2024. This exciting news comes after a successful hot-fire test of the Vulcain 2.1 core stage engine, which took place on November 23. The test involved a full-scale rehearsal of the launch timeline, followed by over seven minutes of stabilized operation covering the entire flight phase of the core stage.

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher expressed confidence in the first launch phase of the new European heavy-lift launcher, stating that Ariane 6 has passed the dress rehearsals required for qualification. The completion of the hot-fire test validated the models and increased knowledge of operations, further enhancing confidence for the upcoming launch.

During the hot-fire test, there was an early shutdown of the Vulcain 2.1 engine. ESA officials explained that this was due to a combination of a faulty sensor and conservatively set fuel limit parameters. The shutdown occurred to protect the launch pad, and it would not present itself as an issue during actual flight conditions.

To qualify Ariane 6 for its maiden flight, two further tests are scheduled. The first is an upper stage test on December 7, which will explore alternative functioning and flight conditions in degraded scenarios. The second is a Combined Test Loading 3 on December 15, which will simulate tanking procedures before launch with built-in error scenarios.

The main and upper stages of Ariane 6’s first flight model, Flight Model 1 (FM-1), are expected to leave Europe by ship in late January or early February 2024 and arrive in Kourou, French Guiana, at the end of February for stacking. FM-1 is scheduled to be on the launch pad at the end of April, marking the conclusion of the Ariane 6 qualification review and certifying the vehicle fit for flight.

On its maiden flight, Ariane 6 will carry several small satellites, including two from NASA. The second flight is planned for the end of 2024 and will carry the French reconnaissance satellite CSO-3 into orbit. Arianespace, the commercial launch service provider, aims to conduct as many flights as possible in 2025, including launches for Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation. The long-term goal is to achieve nine to ten Ariane 6 launches per year.

The successful development and launch of Ariane 6 are crucial for Europe’s access to space. It will support various important missions, such as the European navigation system Galileo, Earth observation via the Copernicus satellites, the planned communication network Iris2, and platforms serving European defense.

The recent decisions made in Seville, where ESA members agreed to provide support for Ariane 6 and Vega C launchers, are essential for Europe’s access to space throughout the decade. This support guarantees the availability of launches and strengthens Europe’s position in the launcher landscape.

ESA Director General Aschbacher emphasized the significance of regaining Europe’s foothold in the launcher landscape and acknowledged the progress made towards the inaugural flight. However, he also emphasized the need to continue delivering on the goals and objectives set forth.

The scheduled launch of Ariane 6 in 2024 marks an important milestone for Europe’s space exploration and commercial activities. With increased confidence and support, Europe is poised to make significant contributions to space science and technology in the coming years.