Europe 'back in space' despite first Ariane 6 failure

Europe 'back in space' despite first Ariane 6 failure

Europe's Ariane 6 rocket takes off from Kourou, French Guiana on July 9, 2024.

Europe's Ariane 6 rocket takes off from Kourou, French Guiana, on July 9, 2024. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Space experts praised Europe's return to space as the Ariane 6 rocket successfully completed a series of tests on its maiden flight on Tuesday, but the mission ended without the launcher releasing its final payload into orbit.

Europe's latest unmanned rocket was launched from French Guiana at 4 pm local time (1900 GMT) under the surveillance of a Rafale fighter jet, restoring the continent's independent access to space after years of delays, political setbacks and debate over funding.

Although it was not a commercial mission, the flight deployed three sets of microsatellites for research purposes, leading European space officials to declare the maiden voyage a success.

“Europe is back in space,” Philippe Baptiste, head of France's CNES space agency, said via video link from the European Space Agency's (ESA) Paris headquarters, where staff and politicians welcomed the launch.

In an eagerly awaited milestone, the Vinci engine powering the rocket's upper stage was restarted in space for the first time. It is designed to be restarted repeatedly, allowing operator Arianespace to place payloads in many different orbits.

However, the third firing had to be aborted when a small power unit shut itself down for unknown reasons, meaning that the final batch of payloads – two small capsules designed to test conditions for a live re-entry – were left stuck onboard.

“We had an anomaly … we probably won't be able to complete this part of the mission as we expected,” said Tina Buchner da Costa, Ariane 6 launch system architect.

The affected auxiliary power unit is a system critical to the rocket's ability to place payloads into their intended orbit.

Although its failure occurred in the final phase of the mission, it is expected to boost engineering investigations.

ESA Director General Joseph Aschbacher said the agency is ready to conduct a second flight by the end of the year.

Ariane 6 was developed at an estimated cost of 4 billion euros ($4.33 billion) by ArianeGroup, which is co-owned by Airbus (AIR.PA), opens a new tab, and Safran (SAF.PA), opens a new tab. Its first launch, originally scheduled for 2020, has been repeatedly delayed.

Since the agency retired its main Ariane 5 rocket more than a year ago, Europe has no independent means of sending its satellites into space, while the war in Ukraine has ended the West's relationship with Russian Soyuz rockets and left Italy's Vega C grounded.

“Ariane 6 is fundamental to Europe's space ambitions,” Tony Tolker-Nielsen, the European Space Agency's (ESA) acting director for space transport, told Reuters from the control room at Europe's space port.

“This is about sovereign access to space for institutional and government missions … and this need has become even more emphasized given the geopolitical situation.”

Space competition

Europe's temporary isolation in a fast-growing global market was highlighted last year, when its agencies were forced to shift some payloads to US rival SpaceX's Falcon 9.

Ariane 6's existence is possible due to a decision made in 2014 by ESA's 22 nations to develop a family of rockets in the face of stiff competition from Elon Musk's private space venture.

The United States and dozens of other countries have become heavily reliant on the Falcon 9 to reach orbit, as everyday life on Earth becomes increasingly dependent on satellite connectivity and data.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, who is part of President Emmanuel Macron's outgoing centrist and pro-Europe government and came in third in Sunday's elections, highlighted the role of the Ariane programme as a symbol of European unity.

“Sometimes there are concerns and doubts about whether Europe can play on the same level as China and the US – with Ariane we are proving that through determination and collective will we can work on an equal footing,” he told ESA staff.

Still, European officials said it would take some time for Ariane 6 to become economically profitable, after backing countries agreed last year on a new round of financial support.

“Ariane 6 hasn't reached that level yet in terms of competitiveness, but they want to get there,” said Ian Annett, former deputy CEO of the UK Space Agency.

In the latest setback, European weather satellite operator Eumetsat said last month it would launch its next satellite on a Falcon 9 rather than the initially planned Ariane 6.

The surprise decision angered European officials and shattered calls for support for the local space industry, highlighting tensions over Europe's space ambitions.

ESA has launched an initiative to promote small launcher projects that could open the way for private players in the future. Ariane 6 has 29 missions scheduled to launch over the next several years and aims to fly 12 flights per year. This includes 18 launches for Amazon's Kuiper Internet constellation.

SpaceX has launched Falcon rockets 96 times in 2023 and nearly 70 times so far in 2024, though most of those were to deploy its in-house Starlink satellites. Still, analysts say it has broken the norm and created stiff competition from China, which had 67 launches in 2023.

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