Restoring Europe’s space independence: everything you need to know about the Ariane 6 rocket

July 9 will be an important day for Europe. On this day, ESA and Arianspace will launch the new Ariane 6 rocket for the first time. The rocket has a very ambitious task to overcome the crisis facing the European space industry.

The birth of commercial space in Europe

In 1979, ESA made the debut launch of the Ariane 1 rocket. This event changed the history of space forever. The fact is that Ariane 1 was the first launch vehicle in history to be designed to carry mainly commercial cargo.

The first flight of the Ariane 1 rocket. Source: ESA/CNES/Arianespace

Soon after, the organization of Ariane 1 launches was transferred to the French company Arianespace, which became the world’s first commercial launch operator. The rockets themselves were launched from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana. Due to its proximity to the equator, it is an ideal site for missions requiring the launch of cargo into geostationary orbit.

The new service was in demand. As a result, Ariane 1 was followed by Ariane 2, then Ariane 3, then Ariane 4. Each new rocket was more powerful and reliable than the previous one. The culmination of European commercial spaceflight was Ariane 5, which debuted in 1996. In its most powerful modification, it was capable of launching up to 21 tons of cargo into low Earth orbit. In addition, the rocket was certified for manned missions. At the time of development, it was supposed to be used to launch the European Hermes spacecraft. However, the project was later canceled.

The launch of the Ariane 5 rocket. Source: ESA

Nevertheless, that time was a golden age for European space exploration. Due to its payload capacity, reliability, and ability to launch multiple cargoes into different orbits, Ariane 5 was very popular. It has launched many satellites into orbit, sent the Rosetta probe to Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko and the JUICE mission to Europа, and was even chosen to launch the James Webb Telescope.

The crisis of European launch vehicles

As is often the case in such situations, the company, which was at the peak of its power, did not notice the onset of new times. It’s no secret that Arianespace’s management openly mocked SpaceX’s very ambitious plans to create reusable rockets. So when it came to replacing Ariane 5, the company relied on a traditional one-time rocket, dubbed Ariane 6. And when SpaceX began to rapidly expand its share of the commercial launch market, it was too late to change anything.

The Ariane 6 rocket on the launch pad. Source: ESA-L. Bourgeon

But that was only half the problem. Initially, Ariane 6 was planned to be commissioned in 2020. It was assumed that the rocket would fly into space for some time in parallel with Ariane 5. However, these plans were not destined to come true. First, the Ariane 6 developers faced a number of technical challenges, and then the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. As a result, the Ariane 6 commissioning date was postponed several times. And this is despite the fact that production of Ariane 5 has already been suspended.

However, Arianespace did not believe that the situation was critical. After all, they had a backup in the form of the Vega light rocket, as well as contracts with Roscosmos, due to which Russian Soyuz spacecraft were launched from the Kourou cosmodrome. And then a perfect storm broke out. First, after the start of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Europe cut all space ties with Russia. And then a new modification of the Vega-C rocket, on which great expectations were placed, crashed.

As a result, after the last Ariane 5 was launched in 2023, Europe was left without independent access to space. Many European companies, such as the satellite Internet operator Oneweb, simply had no other options but to turn to SpaceX for help. ESA also had to give several contracts to Elon Musk’s company. A paradoxical situation has arisen: Europe, which once created the commercial launch market, has been completely ousted from it. And mostly because of its own short-sighted decisions. And that is why so much attention is focused on the upcoming Ariane 6 launch.

Technical design of Ariane 6

So what does Ariane 6 look like? The rocket will be produced in two main versions: as a medium-weight Ariane 62 and as a heavy Ariane 64.

The design of the Ariane 62 rocket and the Ariane 64 rocket. Source: ESA – D. Ducros

The medium Ariane 62 consists of two liquid stages using hydrogen as propellant and oxygen as oxidizer, as well as two solid rocket boosters. Its gross weight is 540 tons, and it can launch up to 10.3 tons of cargo into low Earth orbit (LEO) and up to 4.5 tons into geotransition. The declared cost of the Ariane 62 launch is 75 million euros.

The heavy Ariane 64 consists of two liquid stages and four solid rocket boosters. Its gross weight is 870 tons, it can launch up to 21.6 tons of cargo to LEO and up to 11.5 tons to geotransition.

The first flight of Ariane 6 as imagined by an artist. Source: ESA – D. Ducros

The declared cost of the Ariane 64 launch is 115 million euros. For comparison, the cost of launching a Falcon 9 with a similar payload is $67 million. Obviously, the Ariane 64 is unlikely to be able to compete with SpaceX in terms of price. However, the rocket will at least give Europe the ability to launch a wide range of cargoes into space on its own.

Ariane 6 first flight plan

During its first mission, ESA will test a medium-weight Ariane 62 modification. It will carry nine cubesats provided by various European companies and research institutions.       

Ariane 6 maiden flight is scheduled to launch on 9 July. The four-hour window will open at 21:00 Kyiv time. The launch will be broadcast live on YouTube and the ESA website.

The upcoming flight is divided into three main stages. During the first stage, Ariane 6‘s upper stage and payload will be placed into an elliptical orbit with a perigee altitude of 300 km and an apogee altitude of 700 km. At the next stage, the upper stage will re-activate the engine and enter a circular 580-kilometre orbit, after which the cubesats will be separated. At the final stage, engineers will activate the upper stage engine for the third time and put it on a trajectory that will ensure controlled dipping in the South Pacific. Before re-entry, the stage will jettison two capsules. They are part of an experiment to test the technologies and materials needed to return cargo from space. During the descent, the capsules will transmit information via satellite. They are not equipped with parachutes, and their return is not planned. 

Ariane 6 maiden flight plan. Source: ESA

Currently, ESA is making very cautious predictions about the upcoming launch. For example, the organisation’s CEO Josef Aschbacher estimated the chances of success at just over 50%. And even if all the tasks are successfully completed, ESA and Arianespace still have a lot of work to do to restore Europe’s lost space independence. But the first step has to be taken. And we will know what it will be very soon.