Although the first launch has been postponed to 2023, the Ariane 6 program is entering its final phase. Assembly of the launch vehicle continues in an unprecedented manner in Kourou, French Guiana.
It’s not yet “Top, takeoff”, but the countdown is on: The Ariane 6 rocket, which is intended to enable Europe to remain in space, is starting the last test campaign before its maiden flight, which has been postponed to 2023. Lying in its assembly hall at the Kourou space base in French Guiana, the launch vehicle’s central body must be erected in the ‘coming weeks’ on the brand new launch pad located 800 meters away for ‘combined trials’.
These tests, which connect the rocket and its launch package, are “the final straight line” in a program that started in 2014, explained the Director of Space Transportation at the European Space Agency (ESA), Daniel Neuenschwander, during a recent visit to Kourou. Ariane 6, which will have cost almost 4 billion euros, must enable Europe to adapt in particular to the stiff competition from the American SpaceX.
The rocket is said to be 40% cheaper than the Ariane 5 and, above all, more versatile. A version with two side engines (boosters), Ariane 62, will allow her to have the carrying capacity of the Russian Soyuz rocket, whose fire from Guyana was interrupted by the invasion of Ukraine. Another one with four boosters will replace the Ariane 5 heavy launch vehicle.
It will be able to launch large satellites into geostationary orbit at 36,000 kilometers, for which it was designed in 2014, as well as the “constellations that have emerged since then,” applauds Stéphane Israël, president of the company responsible for the Arianespace operation. Also, “although Ariane 6 has not yet flown, it has had commercial success” with 29 launches already sold, including 18 for hundreds of small satellites in the Kuiper constellation of the vast Amazon, he recalls. Ariane 6 and its launch pad were designed to do 12 launches per year with two weeks between launches, while Ariane 5, which was only launched five or six times a year, needed 6.
For this, the entire industrial architecture has been redesigned: the body of the launcher is mounted horizontally and no longer vertically, the assembly with the fairing and the boosters is carried out directly on the launch pad, protected by a mobile portal that towers over the Guyana canopy from 90 meters .
And “we have recently successfully taken a step with the tests of the cryogenic weapons that allow the injection of the propellant,” adds Franck Huiban, director of ArianeGroup’s civil programs. These separate only at the start of the rocket and no longer before. This makes it easier to dump the rocket in the event of aborted launch and to reconfigure the rocket in two days compared to three weeks for Ariane 5.
There are still countless tests to “qualify” the system, from the control room to the upper stage of the rocket, whose re-ignitable engine still has to be subjected to “fire tests” in Germany. In Kourou, “all operating processes are tested” during the combined tests, including in “degraded mode,” explains Franck Huiban, wearing a hard hat.
The idea is to recreate flight without the rocket taking off. There will therefore be several firings of the Vulcain 2.1 engine, “a first short firing, then a long one, representative of a flight” of the main stage, ie 500 seconds, according to him. “We have a bomb on the launch pad, we have to make sure we have control of the launcher,” explains another Arianegroup representative on condition of anonymity.
The first launch of Ariane 6 was originally planned for 2020, then in late 2022 before being pushed back to 2023. For Stéphane Israel “some things are taking longer than expected, but we are not in a technical impasse, the main parameters are under control”.
That’s not unusual for a program under development, Daniel Neuenschwander agrees. “Several milestones must be reached by mid-July,” says the ESA manager, who will announce a new schedule on July 13, which is itself “consolidated by the end of September.”
There’s no question that the premiere launch will end on the mat. The last two date from 1996 (Ariane 5) and 2012 (Vega), “one went well, the other not”, he recalls, referring to the explosion in flight of the first Ariane 5 “If we need more time, we” take it.”
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