Europe’s Ariane 6 Rocket Is About To Launch – Here’s Why It’s A Big Deal

The wait is almost over: Europe will once again have its own access to space as Ariane 6 is set to make its inaugural launch this summer. The date will be announced soon, but is expected to be some time between mid-June and the end of July. Across Europe and beyond, there is a lot of trepidation – there is a lot counting on this.

Ariane 6 is the successor to Ariane 5, which has been a crucial asset for the European Space Agency (ESA). From 1996 until 2023, Ariane 5 accumulated 117 launches, with 112 successful. It was Ariane 5 that launched JWST into space. Developed by Arianespace, Ariane 6 has a legacy to live up to, and also overcome. The rocket will be taller but lighter, and each launch will be more affordable than on Ariane 5.

“Ariane 5 was really the workhorse of Europe to bring heavy and medium-sized satellites into space. Ariane 6 will be more modern, will be cheaper, and more versatile. That means it has more flexibility to leave satellites in different orbits,” Dr Josef Aschbacher, ESA Director General, told IFLScience. 

“We use the infrastructure that satellites provide every single day: navigation, telecommunication, Earth observation… but we also explore the universe with the satellites that we launch into space with our Ariane rockets.”

Upcoming missions – Habitable worlds, X-ray observatories, and chasing comets 

ESA has a plethora of exciting upcoming missions set to launch on Ariane 6. The PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) is a state-of-the-art observatory that will look for habitable worlds around stars like the Sun launching in 2026. A smaller but related mission is the Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey (ARIEL) which will take its time to study the atmospheres of about 1,000 known worlds, building on the revolutionary current work of JWST.

ARIEL is set to launch in 2029 alongside the companion mission Comet Interceptor. The spacecraft will not do much at first – it will simply park in space away from Earth. But once a comet from the edge of the Solar System (or maybe even an interstellar one) comes near, it will be deployed to catch up with it and study this yet-to-be-discovered object. Truly a unique mission. 

ESA is contributing to the understanding of the universe, to unraveling the secrets of our universe. And Ariane 6 rocket will be necessary to launch those telescopes into orbit.

Dr Josef Aschbacher

Further into the future, but with a lot of expectations, are LISA and ATHENA. LISA is going to be the first gravitational wave observatory in space, measuring the vibrations in space-time in a way we can’t do on Earth (or even on the Moon). ATHENA, or the Advanced Telescope for High-ENergy Astrophysics, will be the successor of the current X-ray observatories, expected to be 10 times better. 2035 can’t come quickly enough, especially since NASA is slowly going to defund its X-ray observatory Chandra.

“Ariane 6 will be launching these missions,” Dr Aschbacher told IFLScience. “We are now preparing for the next one: PLATO. The big ones are certainly LISA and ATHENA, which are coming next decade. ESA is contributing to the understanding of the universe, to unraveling the secrets of our universe, and Ariane 6 rocket will be necessary to launch those telescopes into orbit.”

A future crewed vehicle?

Depending on how it develops, Ariane 6 would also launch this cargo or maybe crew vehicle into space. We are not there yet, but this would be the hope of how Ariane 6 could further develop.

Dr Josef Aschbacher 

Ariane 6 will have more launches than its predecessor. Dr Aschbacher stressed how it will guarantee access to space on a routine basis, but his hope for this rocket is in the recently agreed cargo transportation vehicle, such as the proposed SUSIE (Smart Upper Stage for Innovative Exploration). During the Space Summit last November between the European Union and ESA, a timeline has been envisioned to have a reusable cargo vehicle at work by 2028, carrying cargo to and from the International Space Station – a vehicle that could evolve into a crewed one after demonstrating its safety and reliability.

“We do not have this re-entry capability today in Europe. This vehicle is certainly something that is necessary and we would like to develop this technology, a very important step in exploration. After flying a few times, of course ensuring reliability and performance, this could evolve into a crewed vehicle. That means for astronauts, of course,” Dr Aschbacher excitedly explained to IFLScience. But he was careful in telling us that the dream is yet to deal with the reality of how projects are agreed upon and funded within ESA. 

“This is not yet decided, just to be clear. For this to happen, I would need the decisions from the member states,” he said. “Depending on how it develops, Ariane 6 would also launch this cargo or maybe crew vehicle into space. We are not there yet, but this would be the hope of how Ariane 6 could further develop.”

                  

A heavy-lift rocket

Ariane 6 will have two variants: the 62 (with two boosters) and the 64 (with, you guessed it, four boosters). Both will be used to send material into low-Earth orbit, geosynchronous transfer orbit, and beyond. Thanks to the new restartable Vinci engine that will power up the Ariane 6 upper stage, satellites or payloads can be put into any necessary orbit.

With an eye to commercial access to space, a lot of comparisons have been made between Ariane 6 and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Ariane 6 is not reusable, and while it brought down costs by almost half compared to Ariane 5, launches on the Falcon fleet usually have a financial edge.

Ariane 6’s edge might be in the payload capacity. Falcon Heavy outdoes Ariane 64 in terms of payload in its expendable variation, which is more costly than Ariane 64. The reusable version needs to take into account the fuel to safely bring back the rockets and booster, and that eats at the payload capability. A rocket needs to generate enough thrust to lift itself, its fuel, and all the payload.

“Designing and developing a rocket is not an easy job; it needs a lot of teamwork. When I became Director-General of ESA three years ago, I did an assessment of the status of the [Ariane 6] development and it was clear that we had quite a few problems,” Dr Aschbacher told IFLScience. “I was really spending 60 percent of my time with many members of my team to bring Ariane 6 development back on track together with our industry partners. I’m very proud and happy to say that we have managed to overcome all the technical problems.”

It serves all elements of society. It brings satellites into space. No launcher, no space. No space, no Internet connection from space, no navigation systems, no Earth observation. This is really the very fundamental element to enable the standard of living we have.

Dr Josef Aschbacher

The launch is just weeks away, and access to space for Europe is about to be changed forever. But ESA is not resting waiting to see how Ariane 6 develops. The agency is already looking for the next launcher, which might begin launching in the late 2030s.

“We are looking for the successor of Ariane 6 which of course will be reusable, to have further cost reduction and make it more versatile for the European space industry but also for society at large. A launcher may sound very technical and very specific, but it serves all elements of society. It brings satellites into space. No launcher, no space. No space, no Internet connection from space, no navigation systems, no Earth observation. This is really the very fundamental element to enable the standard of living we have,” Dr Aschbacher told IFLScience.

Ariane 6 will launch from the European Space Port of Kourou in French Guiana, a region of France in South America. Its inaugural voyage will bring multiple payloads including a small satellite nicknamed “the witness” that will record the first flight from launch all the way to the deorbit and burn. It was designed and built by ESA’s newest space recruits.

The launch will be one for the history books, and we look forward to seeing Ariane 6 take to the sky.

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