Europe has been barred from independent access to space for its large satellites for months after the Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket retired this week after completing its 117th and final mission in 27 years of operation. confronting.
Its much-anticipated successor, the Ariane 6, is still in final development and testing. It is behind schedule and unlikely to fly until the end of this year, with some industry experts suggesting the first flight could be in late 2024.
The situation in Europe is further compounded by the fact that the small rocket “Vega C” remains grounded after an in-flight failure in December last year, and that Russia’s Soyuz rocket is no longer available for European launches. getting worse. The older Vega is scheduled to fly in September.
European Space Agency (ESA) Executive Director Josef Aschbacher recently said the continent was in the midst of a “serious launch crisis” due to “unavailability of domestic rockets”.
“The performance and accuracy of the Ariane 5 are very unique and will be remembered as a remarkable vehicle, but I am confident that the Ariane 6 will deliver the same performance and accuracy once it hits the launch pad,” he said. said.
The Ariane 6 entered service primarily because the production costs of the Ariane 5 became unsustainable in the face of US competition. It will be at least 40% cheaper than the Ariane 5, but will still be a “consumable” design.
Ariane 6 is available in two versions depending on the performance you need. Ariane 62 with 2 strap-on boosters and Ariane 64 with 4 strap-on boosters.
The Ariane 62 can launch approximately 4,500 kg payload into Geostationary Orbit (GEO) or 10,300 kg payload into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), while the Ariane 64 can launch approximately 11,500 kg payload into GEO and 20,600 kg payload. can be launched to LEO. It will also offer ride-sharing opportunities to small satellites.
At over 60 meters (197 feet) tall, the Ariane 6 weighs nearly 900 tons when fired at full payload. That’s roughly the equivalent of one and a half Airbus A380 airliners.
For its development, ESA has worked with an industrial network of hundreds of companies in 13 European countries, led by prime contractor ArianeGroup. French space agency CNES is preparing a launch facility for Ariane 6 at the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
The Ariane 6’s lower stage is equipped with solid rocket boosters that propel the rocket during the first phase of flight, delivering 135 tons of thrust in vacuum. The core stage is powered by the liquid-fueled Vulcain 2.1, an upgraded engine derived from the Ariane 5’s Vulcain 2, and two or four He P120C boosters that provide additional thrust during takeoff.
The upper stage is powered by a reignitable Vinci engine fueled by cryogenic liquid oxygen and hydrogen. The upper stage allows Ariane 6 to reach different orbits in one of his missions, and typically he burns once, twice, or more times before reaching the desired orbit. increase. After payload separation, a final burn-up is performed to deorbit the upper stage to mitigate space debris.
The oval fairing on top of the Ariane 6 comes in two sizes: 20 meters (A64/A62) and 14 meters (A62). Both are 5.4 meters (17.7 feet) in diameter and made from a carbon fiber and polymer composite. Fairings protect the satellite from thermal, acoustic and aerodynamic stresses during ascent into orbit.
Ariane 6 will be launched from French Guiana from a dedicated launch site located 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) west of Ariane 5 launch pad. The main structure consists of a launch vehicle assembly building, a mobile gantry and a launch pad used for horizontal integration and preparation before deployment to the launch zone.
The movable gantry is a movable metal structure, 90 meters (295 feet) high and weighing 8,200 tons when fully loaded, that rotates on rails. It is equipped with a platform to access the launch vehicle for integration into the launch pad. Stored and protected until Ariane 6 is stowed prior to launch.
Development of Ariane 6 began as a response to changing conditions in the global launch market and was approved for promotion at the December 2014 Ministerial Meeting of the ESA Board of Directors. Its main motivation was to maintain European leadership in the commercial launch services market. At the same time, it will meet European needs for independence in space access and use.
ESA’s role in the development of Ariane 6 was to be responsible for the architecture of the entire launch system as well as to oversee the procurement process. Industry is responsible for identifying commercial market requirements, taking into account future commitments in commercial use of launch systems.
“The Ariane 6 will be more flexible, more cost-effective and capable of more missions than the Ariane 5,” Toni Tolker-Nielsen, the agency’s director of space transportation, told Spaceflight Now. Before that, we have to complete some important milestones.” However, it has already been a commercial success and his first three years of production have already sold out. “
Launch system qualification trials for all three main systems – Launcher, Launch System and Launch Pad – will begin this summer, with additional upper stage high temperature burn testing at DLR Lampoldshausen, Germany in late July.
This test simulates a nominal flight profile similar to that planned for the first flight on the P5.2 test bench to confirm the expected behavior of the upper stage. Further tests are planned for late summer to examine the behavior of the stage in degraded cases.
In November, the lower and upper stages will be shipped from France and Germany to French Guiana for full launch vehicle assembly testing and wet dress rehearsals.