In a press briefing held on November 30, 2023, the launch date for Ariane 6 ’s inaugural flight was announced by key figures in Europe’s spaceflight industry. Ariane will launch between June 15 and July 23, 2024, if all remaining tests go accordingly.
Awesome news for Europe’s next and much-anticipated heavy-lift launch vehicle. Speaking at the press briefing were ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher and ESA Director of Space Transportation Toni Tolker-Nielsen, along with CEOs from ArianeGroup, ArianeSpace, and the President of French Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES).
Moreover, the recent combined hot-firing test (CTHF) was also talked about, along with details on the completed and future certification steps for the rocket. The significant decisions concerning the commercial use of Ariane 6 and Vega, along with the expected economic goals for Ariane were another topic of discussion.
What’s been done since the last Ariane 6 update
After being transported and assembled in Kourou, the test model for Ariane 6 was readily put into use. Since the last joint update, there have been two major successful tests.
On October 23, the rocket completed a combined test loading (CTLO 2.1). It consisted of a full launch countdown and was focused on system robustness. To check operational parameters of the launch in cooler temperatures, some phases of testing took place at night. In the 30 hours of tests, qualification tests on multiple launch systems were also performed.
A month later, on November 23, a combined test of loading and a long-duration firing of the Vulcain 2.1 engine, including gimbaling tests, took place. The firing test was a complete success even if it ended before the expected 470-second duration.
The team reassured everything went accordingly. Tolker-Nielsen explained why the test was terminated early. The full duration burn of 470 s would correspond to the lowest level of fuel remaining in the tanks. 50 seconds before that, another section of testing was taking place: validity certification for the sensors that determine the engine’s health.
Even if there weren’t any problems, the chosen thresholds for the test were “very conservative”. So as just one sensor was triggered, the engine was shut, in order to protect the launch pad. The team stressed that the actual logic used during a launch would be different, and in a similar scenario, the engine would stop firing just 1,5 seconds before the nominal burn time.
What’s left to do
As the main tests for Ariane 6’s main stage were completed with the CTHF, the remaining tests will now ensure that a successful launch happens even in critical conditions.
On December 5, the final firing of the upper stage will happen in Lampoldshausen, Germany, at ArianeSpace’s Orbital Propulsion Centre. On December 15 there will be another test loading, CTLO 3, in Kourou, and it will serve to verify fault tolerance, simulating malfunctions, and procedures to address them. There will be a short firing of the engine at the end.
Martin Sion of ArianeGroup stated that, if all goes accordingly, the first parts of the flight-ready Ariane 6 will begin being shipped to Kourou in the first months of 2024. Simultaneously, ESA and ArianeGroup will work to complete the certification of the rocket in time for launch.
The whole team also proved satisfied with the commercial accords taken for Ariane 6, in particular being very pleased with the work done in Seville during the 2023 EU Space Week. They stressed the versatility of Ariane and Stephan Israél, CEO of ArianeSpace, said the first commercial flight would hopefully occur towards the end of 2024, with CSO-3 as payload.
With a very versatile upper stage, both for large payloads and for constellations, Ariane 6 is now almost ready to fill the void left by Ariane 5’s retirement, as Europe’s main heavy-lift launch vehicle.