ESA schedules first Ariane-6 launch for July 9, 2024

After years of delays and technical problems the European Space Agency (ESA) today announced that it has finally scheduled the first Ariane-6 launch, now to take place on July 9, 2024 from French Guiana.

The press release at the link tries to paint a glowing future for Ariane-6, as illustrated by this quote from Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace.

“With 30 missions in our order book, Ariane 6 has already gained the trust of institutional and commercial customers. We are preparing to make Ariane 6’s second launch by the end of the year, followed by a steady rise to around ten launches a year once we reach cruising speed. It represents a splendid challenge for Arianespace and our partners.”

The simple fact is that Ariane-6 costs too much to launch and is not competitive with the new generation of reuseable rockets. If Amazon’s management had not decided to give it a big launch contract (in order to avoid giving that money to SpaceX), it would have very few payloads to launch. Once those launches are completed expect Ariane-6 to go the way of the dodo and the buggy whip, replaced by a new fleet of competing private European rocket companies capable of doing things faster and cheaper.

ESA narrows Ariane-6 launch date to first two weeks in July

In an announcement today, the European Space Agency (ESA) narrowed the launch window for the first launch of its new Ariane-6 rocket to the first two weeks in July.

It also stated that the final launch date will be revealed in the first week of June, during presentations at an air show in Berlin, Germany.

In the next month the rocket will undergo a full dress rehearsal countdown on the launchpad. It will then be “drained of fuel in preparation” for the actual launch.

This rocket is built and mostly owned by the private consortium ArianeGroup, made up of a partnership of Airbus and Safran, and working in conjunction with ESA. Though Arianespace, ESA’s long time commercial arm, is mentioned as ESA’s “launch service provider” for this launch, it is very clear that it is being pushed aside and will soon become irrelevant. The rocket is four years behind schedule and being entirely expendable it is too expensive to compete in the modern launch market. The member nations of ESA have rejected it, and so they are shifting to a capitalism in space model, whereby they no longer have a government commercial “launch service provider” like Arianespace, but instead buy launch services from competing private European rocket companies.

Europe’s problem is that it will take time to develop these private companies. In the interim it will be forced to use Ariane-6, but likely only for a few years. There are at least five new rocket companies in Europe, with three (Rocket Factory Augsburg, PLD, and Hyimpulse) having already completed their first launch tests.

Update of the reusable cargo capsule by the French company, The Exploration Company

Link here. The article provides a detailed look at the development of the company’s second demonstrator capsule, dubbed Mission Possible, which it hopes to fly in an orbital test sometime in ’25.

Beforehand a smaller demonstrator capsule, dubbed Mission Bikini, will fly on the first launch of the Ariane-6, set for this summer.

Both demonstrators will lay the groundwork fo the launch of the company’s Nyx capsule, designed to provide freighter services to any one of the four private space stations presently being built.

ESA is taking the Vega rockets away from Arianespace and giving it to the company that builds it

Capitalism in space: The European Space Agency (ESA) is in the process of taking control of the Vega family of rockets away from its commercial arm, Arianespace, and returning that ownership to the Italian company, Avio, that builds those rockets.

In late 2023, ESA member states agreed to allow Avio to market and manage the launch of Vega C flights independent of Arianespace. When the deal was initially struck, 17 flights were contracted through Arianespace to be launched aboard Vega vehicles. While these missions are still managed by Arianespace, Avio is working with the launch provider to strike a deal that would allow the Italian rocket builder to assume the management of all Vega flights.

The article’s focus is on a new contract that ESA has just awarded to Vega through Arianespace. noting that this contract will likely be shifted to Avio before launch in 2025.

This decision continues the process of slowly killing off Arianespace. Instead of relying on this government entity to build and market its launch operations, ESA is instead going to become a customer only, relying on competing commercial rocket companies for its launch services. When Avio completes its takeover of Vega, Arianespace will only be responsible for the Ariane-6 rocket, which is built by ArianeGroup and essentially owns it as well. Expect that rocket to be shifted completely to ArianeGroup. At that point Arianespace will no longer have any reason for existing, and will be shut down.

First and second stages of first Ariane-6 rocket are now assembled and on the launchpad

Having integrated together the core first stage and the upper stage of the first Ariane-6 rocket, engineers have now lifted both vertical on the launch pad in preparation for its launch sometime in June or July.

Next two strap-on boosters will be attached to the core stage, as well as the payloads made up of eighteen different smallsats and experiments, including two test re-entry capsules testing their ability to bring payloads safely back to Earth.

Head of France’s space agency blames too many subcontractors for high cost of Ariane-6

At a conference yesterday the head of France’s CNES space agency, Philippe Baptiste, strongly blasted the European Space Agency’s (ESA) system of distributing contracting work to many subcontractors in its partner countries for high cost of its new expendable Ariane-6, a high cost that makes it uncompetitive in today’s launch market.

While giving his remarks, the CNES boss explained that “the European space industry, which is largely French, is in danger today. Our industry is not pivoting quickly enough. We must move quickly, reduce cycles, costs, otherwise we will all die.” It should be noted that the hyperbole towards the end of that statement may be exaggerated thanks to its translation from French to English.

On Ariane 6, Baptiste stated that “today, we are too expensive, including on Ariane 6. We are missing several tens of millions of euros, which we cannot find among European subcontractors.”

As the article then notes, this is not a new problem. ESA attempted to reduce it when it agreed in 2017 to give ownership of Ariane-6 to ArianeGroup, a joint partnership of Airbus and Safran, two of Europe’s biggest aerospace companies. The idea was that ArianeGroup would be in charge, and thus less bound to give out multiple subcontracts to many different companies scattered throughout ESA’s European partners.

This apparently did not happen, and the reason is likely because Ariane-6 was still a rocket conceived by the ESA to be run by the ESA, not a private company. That government control is also the reason Ariane-6 was designed not be reusable, even though in 2017 it was very obvious that an expendable rocket would be uncompetitive in the 2020s launch market. The bureaucrats at ESA didn’t want to take chances, so they choose a conservative design.

Baptiste’s remarks today I think help explain France’s decision earlier this week to award contracts to four rocket startups. France has finally realized that its partnership in ESA has been hindering its own space industry, and is now moving to encourage its growth outside of ESA.

There is great irony here. France led the way in creating ESA, because it wanted others to help pay for its space program. Now it rejects that partnership because its partners are simply doing what is natural, demand their own piece of the action.

Regardless, this breakup is good news. It means the European government monopoly on launch services is truly ending.

The payloads to be carried on the first Ariane-6 launch

With the first Ariane-6 rocket now being stacked for its first test flight sometime in the June-July timeframe, a European Space Agency (ESA) press release today touted the payloads the rocket will carry.

All told, the rocket will carry nine cubesats, two satellite deploy systems, two test re-entry capsules, and five experimental payloads. That only four are government payloads, with the rest from a variety of private companies, once again illustrates ESA’s shift from running everything. It is acting to encourage commercial operations that are establishing capabilities that it once would have demanded it do. Instead it will be the customer for these things in the future.

The two re-entry capsules might be the most interesting payloads of all. Both are private, from ArianeGroup and the French company The Exploration Company. The latter is developing its own Nyx cargo freighter, comparable to Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus capsule, aimed at providing cargo services to the many commercial space stations presently being built. This test flight is apparently designed to prove out some of the company’s re-entry technology.

Ariane-6 arrives in French Guiana

Europe’s new rocket, Ariane-6, has arrived by specially-designed ship at the dock in French Guiana and is ready for off loading in advance of its presently scheduled inaugural launch this summer.

On this trip, Canopée brings the central core for Ariane 6’s first flight. Having collected the upper stage from Bremen, Germany, Canopée moved on to Le Havre, France, to load the main stage of Ariane 6. … Canopée’s structure is tailored to carry large, fragile loads as well as navigate the shallow Kourou river to Pariacabo harbour. From here the various Ariane 6 components are offloaded and transported by road to the new Ariane 6 launch vehicle assembly building just a few kilometres away.

Built for Arianespace, the commercial arm of the European Space Agency (ESA). the rocket’s launch is four years behind schedule. It is also not reuseable, which has limited its marketability and explains why ESA as well as its member nations have shifted to encouraging new private rocket companies with competing and cheaper rockets. It has decided it is a mistake to rely solely on a government-owned rocket company.

The core and upper stages of the first Ariane-6 rocket are now on the way to French Guiana

After almost a decade of development and delays of more than four years, the core and upper stages of Europe’s Ariane-6 rocket are now on board ship and on the way to French Guiana for that rocket’s inaugural launch.

The Canopée ship left the port of Le Havre, in France, carrying the core and upper stages of the Ariane 6 launcher which will be used on the inaugural flight. Arrival at the port of Pariacabo in Kourou, French Guiana, from where it will be transferred to Europe’s Spaceport, is scheduled for the end of February.

Once in French Guiana, the two stages will be assembled vertically and once on the launchpad, will then have attached two solid-fueled strap-on boosters. The launch window is presently from June 15th to July 31st.

India and France sign deal to partner selling flights on their rockets

India and France have apparently signed a deal to not compete in selling flights on their biggest rockets, but instead work together to keep prices under their control.

Under the terms of the MoU [memorandum of understanding], NSIL’s [the commercial space division of India’s government] heavy-lift launch vehicle, LVM-3, and Arianespace’s Ariane-6 will be at the forefront of this joint endeavor.

The article at the link provides no information at all about the specifics of this deal. I am simply guessing that is it designed to control prices, especially because France by itself does not own the Ariane-6 and thus can not award launch contracts for it. All it can do is convince India to not charge less for its comparable LVM rocket (a variation of its GSLV rocket). If so, it is a bad deal for India, which can easily undercut any price that Arianespace can charge for the expensive Ariane-6. It will drive business from India, since other companies (such as SpaceX, ULA, and hopefully Blue Origin in the near future) will be under no obligation to match Ariane-6’s high cost.

It is also possible that the deal is simply an empty political gesture, timed during the visit to India by France’s President Emmanuel Macron. Its vague language suggests this. It gives Macron a photo op, but as an MOU it leaves India under no long term obligation.

Europe signs up four rocket startups to provide it launch services

Capitalism in space: The European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Commission have jointly signed four rocket startups to contracts for eventually providing these government agencies a competitive commercial rocket industry capable of launching its payloads into space.

Each of the companies will receive a “frame” contract as part of the initiative, allowing them to compete for task orders for launching specific missions. Officials did not disclose the anticipated value of those contracts, or how many launch companies competed to participate in the program.

Four of the companies selected for the Flight Ticket Initiative are startups working on small launch vehicles: Isar Aerospace, Orbex, PLD Space and Rocket Factory Augsburg. None of them have yet conducted an orbital launch but expect to do so within the next two years.

Arianespace, ESA’s launch company that previously had a monopoly on launches, also received a frame contract, but it apparently must now compete for future contracts with these startups.

Europe had attempted to compete with SpaceX by once again using Arianespace and its big space contractors to build the Ariane-6 rocket. That project however is years behind schedule, and has resulted in an expendable rocket that is too expensive. Europe has thus been forced to buy launches from SpaceX.

This new arrangement essentialy means that Europe has adopted the recommendations I made in my 2017 policy paper, Capitalism in Space, available here [pdf]. Rather than design, build, and own its rockets, Europe will instead become a customer like anyone else, buying products developed and owned by private and competing European rocket companies.

Of the startup companies listed above, two (Isar and Rocket Factory) are German, one (Orbex) is British, and one is Spanish (PLD). Thus, this arrangement also spreads the wealth throughout Europe.

Unless outside events change things (such as war or economic collapse), this decision is likely to result in a renaissance in Europe’s launch industry comparable to what is happening now in the U.S. and India. If so, the future for the exploration and settlement of the solar system looks bright indeed.

Amazon signs launch contract with SpaceX

Amazon on December 1, 2023 announced it has signed a three-launch contract with SpaceX to place its Kuiper satellites into orbit, supplementing the launch contracts it presently has with ULA, Arianespace, and Blue Origin. From the Amazon press release:

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is a reusable, two-stage launch vehicle designed for the reliable and safe transport of people and payloads into Earth orbit and beyond, and it has completed more than 270 successful launches to date. Project Kuiper has contracted three Falcon 9 launches, and these missions are targeted to lift off beginning in mid-2025.

In 2022 Amazon had signed contracts with the other three launch companies, with ULA getting 38 Vulcan launches (in addition to 9 already signed for its Atlas-5), Arianespace getting 18 Ariane-6 launches, and Blue Origin getting 12 New Glenn launches.

The problem however is that, except for the Atlas-5, none of these rockets has yet completed its first flight. Since Amazon’s FCC license requires it to get half of its constellation of 3,200+ satellites into orbit by 2026 or face penalties, the uncertainty of these rockets has probably forced Amazon management to consider SpaceX, despite likely hostility to such a deal from Jeff Bezos (owner of Blue Origin and founder of Amazon).

Amazon management also probably decided to sign this deal because of a lawsuit filed in September 2023 by company stockholders, accusing the management of neglience because it never even considered SpaceX in earlier contract negotiations while giving favoritism to Bezos’s company Blue Origin. At that time Amazon had already paid these launch companies about $1.7 billion, with Blue Origin getting $585 million, though not one rocket has yet launched, with Blue Origin showing no evidence that a launch coming anytime soon.

The impression of a conflict of interest by Amazon’s board of directors appeared very obvious. This new SpaceX contract weakens that accusation.

More important the deal will help Amazon actually get its satellites into orbit. It appears that reality is finally biting at Amazon, and its management has realized that the three companies they have been relying on might not be up to the job (especially Blue Origin).

ESA admits Ariane-6 will not fly until the summer of 2024

The European Space Agency today announced that the first launch of its new Ariane-6 rocket will not take place in the first quarter of 2024 and is now targeting a summer launch instead.

At a Nov. 30 briefing, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher announced a launch period for the inaugural Ariane 6 flight of June 15 through July 31. A more precise launch date will be provided after qualification reviews in the spring of 2024. The announcement comes after a Nov. 23 long-duration test firing of a model of the core stage of the Ariane 6. That test, conducted on the launch pad at Kourou, French Guiana, was intended to simulate a full burn by the core stage.

The delay is not significant by itself, but in the large scheme of things it continues for another few months Europe’s lack of any large rockets to launch any payloads. The original plan when the Ariane-6 project was announced in the mid-2010s was for it to begin flights in 2020 with a several year overlap as the Ariane-5 was retired around 2023. As planned, the last launch of Ariane-5 occurred this summer, but Ariane-6 is now four years behind schedule.

At the moment the rocket has one more major test required, an upper stage static fire test scheduled for December. That test must go well for this new schedule to go forward, which will include a second Ariane-6 launch in 2024 followed by “as many flights as possible” in 2025. ESA hopes to do 9 to 10 Ariane-6 launches per year, most to fulfill the contract of 18 launches with Amazon to put some of its Kuiper satellite constellation into orbit.

Ariane-6’s core stage completes full 7 minute engine test

Engineers yesterday successfully completed a two-hour dress rehearsal countdown and fueling of an Ariane-6 first stage followed by a full seven minute engine burn, simulating what that stage would do during a launch.

The test took place on Ariane-6’s launchpad in French Guiana.

The November 23 test sequence was run the same way as the previous ones, with a launch sequence and final countdown representative of a launch, including removal of the mobile gantry and filling the launcher’s upper and core stage tanks with liquid hydrogen (-253° Celsius) and liquid oxygen (-183° Celsius). The test ended with the ignition of the core stage Vulcain 2.1 engine, followed by more than 7 minutes of stabilized operation covering the entire core stage flight phase. All functional aspects of Ariane 6’s core stage during the flight phase were tested.

According to the European Space Agency, only one more engine test of the Ariane-6’s upper stage remains before the spring launch can be attempted, and that engine test is planned for next month in Germany.

With the retirement of the Ariane-5 rocket in July, Europe has had no large rocket to launch payloads. Originally Ariane-6’s first launches were supposed to be in parallel with Ariane-5’s last launches, but its development is four years behind schedule.

Amazon’s first two Kuiper satellites in orbit worked exactly as planned

Amazon announced today that its first two Kuiper satellites, launched into orbit by ULA’s Atlas-5 rocket on October 6, 2023, have worked exactly as planned, thus allowing the company to begin building operational satellites.

With the prototypes’ testing in space now complete, Badyal said Amazon plans to begin building the first production Kuiper satellites in December and launch the first satellites for its network in the “latter part of the first half” of 2024. Badyal emphasized that Amazon wasn’t sure what performance to expect from the prototype satellites, since “you don’t know how well it’s going to work in space.”

“They’re working brilliantly,” Badyal said.

The need of Amazon to start launching lots of satellites next year — in order to meet its FCC license requirements to put half of its 3,000+ constellation in orbit by 2026 — puts great pressure on ULA, Blue Origin, and Arianespace to get their new but as yet unlaunchd rockets operating. All three have big launch contracts with Amazon, but none presently appear to have the capability to meet the demands of those contracts.

Three European nations sign deal with Arianegroup for use of Ariane-6

In a separate deal outside of the European Space Agency, Germany, France, and Italy have signed a deal with the private rocket company Arianegroup to use its still unlaunched Ariane-6, assuming the company can reduce costs.

The agreement will provide €340 million ($365 million) of financing a year for Arianespace’s Ariane 6 rocket in exchange for a commitment to an 11% cut in costs. The rocket will also be awarded at least four missions from public institutions a year, while the lighter Vega C launcher will get at least three.

Essentially the deal is intended to keep Ariane-6 afloat, as its high cost has made it difficult to attract customers. At the same time, the contract demands those costs be reduced, and adds pressure to that demand by noting that future and additional launches will be awarded on a purely competitive bidding process. It appears these three countries will open bidding not only to the new rocket startups being developed in Europe, but American rocket companies as well.

SpaceX gets ESA contract to launch up to four of its Galileo GPS-type satellites

The European Space Agency (ESA) this week announced that it has awarded SpaceX a launch contract to put up to four of its Galileo GPS-type satellites into orbit. Though the deal is signed, approval must still be obtained by ESA’s members and executive commission.

This will be the first time SpaceX will launch any ESA satellites, and the first time in fifteen years that a Galileo satellite will launch outside of Arianespace operations. Previously the Russians had done a number of Galileo launches, using its Soyuz-2 rocket launching out of Arianespace’s French Guiana spaceport, but that partnership ended with Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine.

For the ESA the situation is even worse. It needs SpaceX to launch its satellites because at present it doesn’t have any of its own rockets to do it. The Ariane-5 is retired, and the new Ariane-6 (meant to replace it) is long delayed, and will not have its first test launch until next year, at the earliest. The Vega-C (too small for Galileo anyway) is also grounded due to design defects in the nozzle of its upper stage, while the Vega rocket it replaces has only one more launch before its own retirement.

Much like the Axiom-UK deal posted below, the American commercial space industry is once again making money from others, solely due to the capabilities developed in the past decade due to competition and freedom.

Update on the status of Vulcan, Ariane-6, and New Glenn

Link here. This excellent article is focused on whether these three new rockets, none of which has yet completed its first test flight, will be able to meet their launch contract obligations with Amazon, which needs to launch at least 1,600 satellites of its Kuiper broadband constellation by July 2026 to meet its FCC license requirements. Those requirements also obligate Amazon to have the full constellation of about 3,200 satellites in orbit by July 2029.

The launch contracts to these three untried rockets was the largest such contract ever issued, involving 83 launches and billions of dollars.

To sum up where things stand in terms of the first test launch of each rocket:
» Read more

ESA successfully test fires upper stage engines of new Ariane-6 rocket

Despite delays in test firing the first stage engines on ESA’s new Ariane-6 rocket, it has successfully tested fired the rocket’s upper stage engines in Germany.

The test of the full upper stage – including the new Vinci engine and a smaller Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) – took place on a purpose-built test bench at German Aerospace Center DLR’s engine test centre in Lampoldshausen, Germany.

Vinci, the upper stage engine of Ariane 6 fed by liquid hydrogen and oxygen, can be stopped and restarted multiple times – to place satellites into different orbits and then de-orbit the upper stage, so it is not left behind as hazardous debris in space. The APU makes it possible for Vinci to restart in space, by maintaining adequate pressure in the fuel tanks and preventing bubbles in the fuel lines. The APU uses small amounts of liquid hydrogen and oxygen from the main tanks – replacing a system which relied on large quantities of tanked helium.

A last hot-fire test is scheduled before final qualification of the Ariane 6 upper stage, with the aim of testing its operation for different types of missions, as well as in degraded conditions.

Meanwhile, the next attempt to do the same with the first stage in French Guiana is scheduled to take place on September 5th.

ESA official confirms first Ariane-6 launch will not occur until 2024

The head of ESA yesterday confirmed what had been known since May, that the first test flight of its Ariane-6 rocket will not take place this year but will be delayed until 2024.

In an update on the Ariane 6 program also posted Tuesday, the ESA said that it could not complete a short hot firing test — which mimics the environment in space to provide data to operators — of Ariane’s Vulcain 2.1 engine system in a July attempt, with plans to try again on August 29.

Aschbacher said the tentative plan is to carry out a long hot fire test of the assembled core stage and engine on September 26 at the agency’s spaceport in French Guiana. If those tests are successful, it should then be possible to set a more precise timeline for getting the rocket system ready for launch next year.

It seems the inability of engineers to complete that July engine test — which ESA officials claimed was because they simply ran out of time — added at least a six-week delay to the entire program.

There delays leave Europe without any large rocket to launch payloads, and has forced its various governments to hire SpaceX to get those payloads into space.

ESA: Ariane-6’s launch systems tests “progressing well”

According to a press release today from the European Space Agency (ESA), tests of the launch systems for its new Ariane-6 rocket are “progressing well”, though this particular test program was unable to finish its launch countdown rehearsal on July 18th with an actual static fire engine test of the rocket’s first stage engine.

The launch simulation included the removal of the mobile gantry, the chill-down of ground and launcher fluidic systems, the filling of the upper and core stage tanks with liquid hydrogen (–253°C) and liquid oxygen (–183°C), and at the end of the test, the successful completion of a launch chronology up to the ignition of the Vulcain 2.1 engine thrust chamber by the ground system.

During the 26-hour exercise, the teams successfully tested many degraded and contingency modes, demonstrating that the launcher and the launch base fit correctly. Operational procedures, lower and upper stages, avionics, software, launch base and control bench worked correctly together, and the performance of the full launch system was measured with excellent results.

The last part of the test – a short ignition of the Vulcain 2.1 engine – had to be postponed to the next test session as time ran out. The teams are now working towards continuing the exercise, in preparation for a long duration hot firing test later this summer. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words imply a certain leisureliness on ESA’s part, an impression that might be wrong but it is the impression this language gives out. One wonders why the launch countdown could not have been completed to that static fire engine burst. “Time running out” seems a very lame reason, especially since ESA no longer has the Ariane-5 rocket and the Ariane-6 to replace it is years behind schedule.

The last Ariane-5 launch scheduled for July 4th

Arianespace has now scheduled the last Ariane-5 launch for July 4, 2023, after a delay caused by a problem with “the pyrotechnic transmission lines” on the rocket, requiring their replacement.

The replacement happened faster than originally expected. The launch will place a French military communications satellite into orbit as well as a German experimental communications satellite.

After this launch, Europe will temporarily be without any method for launching its own payloads, for the first time this century. Its Vega-C rocket is presently grounded due to a launch failure in December 2022, and the Ariane-6 rocket that was to replace the Ariane-5 is years behind schedule, and not expected to fly until 2024. The original plan was for there to be an overlap between the two rockets, but the delays ended that plan.

Ariane-6 engineering test rocket at launchpad for engine tests

Ariane-6 test version at launchpad
Click for original image.

An engineering test version of ArianeGroup’s Ariane-6 rocket has arrived at the launchpad in French Guiana, where it will undergo a series of static fire engine and fueling tests.

As seen in this image [to the right] taken on 22 June 2023, the doors of this mobile gantry have been opened and the structure rolled back on rails. The operation, which takes about half an hour, was a trial run in preparation for a series test firings of the Vulcain 2.1 engine. These test firings will be conducted on the launch pad as part of ongoing preparations for the first-ever flight of Ariane 6. Removing the gantry for the first time – and then returning it – also helped validate the Ariane 6 ground infrastructure.

The Ariane 6 rocket visible here is not intended for flight. It is being used to check assembly procedures, electrical and fuel connections, telemetry, etc. Flight models, including the rocket that will make Ariane 6’s inaugural flight, are being built in Europe and integrated by prime contractor Ariane Group. After shipping to French Guiana, Ariane 6 core and upper stages are assembled horizontally, before being transferred to the launch pad and lifted upright inside the gantry, where the solid-fuel boosters and payload are attached. The horizontal assembly method cuts the time and cost of a launch campaign, and is a first for an Ariane rocket.

With only one Ariane-5 rocket launch left on its manifest, the European Space Agency desperately needs to get Ariane-6 off the ground and operational. It was originally supposed to make its first launch in 2020, thus overlapping the final launches of Ariane-5 by several years. At this moment it appears there will be a gap between when one rocket retires and the other begins flying.

Tomorrow’s final launch of Europe’s Ariane-5 rocket delayed indefinitely

Arianespace officials today cancelled tomorrow’s final launch of its Ariane-5 rocket — supposedly to be replaced by the not-yet-flown Ariane-6, citing issues with “three pyrotechnical transmission lines that are associated with the Ariane 5’s solid rocket boosters.”

No new launch date has been set. There is the possibility that to resolve this issue the rocket will have to be rolled back to its assembly building and destacked. If so, the launch will be delayed months.

At the moment, Europe has only managed one launch in 2023, a far cry from the seven to twelve launches it used to do annually, before SpaceX came along and offered a cheaper rocket that could launch more frequently and quicker.

Hat tip to BtB’s stringer Jay.

Ariane-6’s first launch now likely delayed again, until 2024

According to officials from the German company OHB, which makes parts of Europe’s new Ariane-6 rocket, its first launch will not take place before the end of this year, as presently scheduled by Arianespace, the commercial arm of the European Space Agency (ESA).

In a May 10 earnings call, executives with German aerospace company OHB predicted that the rocket will make its long-delayed debut within the first several months of 2024, the strongest indication yet by those involved with the rocket’s development that it will not be ready for launch before the end of this year.

“It’s not yet launched, but we hope that it will launch in the early part of next year,” said Marco Fuchs, chief executive of OHB, of Ariane 6 during a presentation about the company’s first quarter financial results. A subsidiary of OHB, MT Aerospace, produces tanks and structures for the rocket. Later in the call, he estimated the rocket was no more than a year away from that inaugural flight. “I am getting more and more confident we will see the first launch of Ariane 6 early next year,” he said. “I think we are within a year of the first launch and that is psychologically very important.”

These delays seriously impact many projects of ESA and other European companies. Ariane-6 was originally supposed to launch by 2020, overlapping the retirement of its Ariane-5 rocket by several years. Ariane-5 now has only one launch left, presently scheduled for June. Once that flies, Europe will have no large rocket available until Ariane-6 begins operations. This situation is worsened for Europe in that its other smaller rocket, the Vega-C, failed on its last launch and has not yet resumed operations.

It is not surprising therefore that many European projects have been shifting their launch contracts away from Ariane-6 to SpaceX and others. It is also not surprising that there is now an increasing move in Europe to develop new competing private rocket companies, rather than relying on a government-owned entity like Arianespace.

Viasat drops launch contract with Ariane-6

With SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy having just completed the first of three launches for Viasat’s new geosynchronous constellation of communication satellites, the satellite company has announced that it is cancelling its launch contract with Ariane-6 for the third launch.

The decision means the launch contract is up for grabs for the third ViaSat 3 internet satellite, the last of a three-satellite constellation Viasat is deploying to provide global broadband connectivity from space.

Viasat announced in 2018 it selected SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and Arianespace to each launch one ViaSat 3 satellite, awarding launch contracts to three industry leaders.

The ULA launch, on its Atlas-5 rocket, is still scheduled for either late this year or early next.

The development of Ariane-6 however is years behind schedule. Furthermore, Arianespace has given priority on Ariane-6 to all of the ESA launches that formerly were going to be launched on Russian Soyuz rockets, further delaying Viasat’s launch.

For Viasat, the delays have become unacceptable, and it has now opened that third launch to bidding. Though both ULA’s Vulcan and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rockets could do the job, neither is operational either. It appears SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is the only rocket available and is therefore almost certain to get the contract, a conclusion further confirmed by the timing of this announcement, just prior to that successful Falcon Heavy launch.

April 18, 2023 Quick space links

Courtesy of BtB’s stringer Jay.



France, Germany, and Italy agree on allowing competition from European rocket startups

Capitalism in space: France, Germany, and Italy yesterday signed an agreement [pdf] whereby they agreed to push European policy-makers to allow competition from independent European rocket startups for launch contracts.

At least, this is what I think they have agreed to. I have read the article and the agreement several times, and remain somewhat unsure of their intent. The agreement is couched in the typical bureaucratic language specifically designed to obscure meaning. The article does little to clarify things.

It appears this is the key language in the agreement:

The proposed acknowledgement of operational European NewSpace micro and mini launch systems for ESA satellite launch service procurements, upon its adoption by Council, would effectively represent a first step towards an evolution of the launch service procurement policy for ESA missions as referred to in the ESA Council Resolution adopted in 2005.

What I gather is that these three countries no longer want European launch contract awards limited to the Arianespace rockets Ariane-6 and Vega-C. They want bidding opened to all European rocket startups, and they want the elimination of rules that require all contracts distributed by quota to European countries.

Germany already has three commercial rocket startups on the verge of their first launch, and apparently wants the European Space Agency to stop favoring Arianespace in launch contracts. That France and Italy are going along with this is significant, since Ariane-6 is dominated by French developers and Vega-C is dominated by Italian developers.

ESA delays first Ariane-6 launch to late in 2023

The European Space Agency has once again delayed the first Ariane-6 launch, shifting it to the fourth quarter of 2023.

Even so, officials warned that this is merely “a planned date,” and that static fire tests of both the first stage and second stage must first be completed before the launch can go forward.

Ariane-6 was initially supposed to begin launching in 2020, putting it three years behind schedule. Furthermore, it has struggled to obtain customers, as it is entirely expendable and thus expensive and not competitive with SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

Since Ariane-6 is delayed and the Ariane-5 rocket’s has only a few launches left before retirement, ESA officials also noted that it has now been forced to buy two launches from SpaceX.

The launches include the Euclid space telescope and the Hera probe, a follow-up mission to NASA’s DART spacecraft which last month succeeded in altering the path of a moonlet in the first test of a future planetary defence system. “The member states have decided that Euclid and Hera are proposed to be launched on Falcon 9,” ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher told reporters after a meeting of the 22-nation agency’s ministerial council.

The launches will take place in 2023 and 2024 respectively.

The irony is that ESA is probably going to save a lot of money launching with the Falcon 9, rather than its own Ariane-6. In fact, I would not be surprised if the total SpaceX price for both launches equals one Ariane-6 launch. Furthermore, SpaceX gets this business because its own American competitors, ULA and Blue Origin, have also failed to get their new rockets flying on time.

September 16, 2022 Quick space links

Courtesy of BtB’s stringer Jay, who trolls Twitter so I don’t have to.

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