Europe Reenters the Space Race With a Critical New Rocket Launching on Tuesday

Update July 9, 3:30 p.m. ET: The Ariane 6 rocket blasted off from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana at 3:00 p.m. ET. Stage separation went well, as did the ignition of the Vinci upper stage engine, which worked in space for the first time.

The Ariane 6 booster falling away during stage separation.
The Ariane 6 booster falling away during stage separation. Credit: ESA

Update July 9, 12:44 p.m. ET: Due to a small issue with the data acquisition system (which has already been resolved), the Ariane 6 launch window has now been delayed to 3 p.m. ET.

Original article follows:

The European Space Agency (ESA) is getting ready to launch its Ariane 6 rocket, hoping to restore Europe’s access to Earth orbit following several delays and technical hiccups that have marred the development of its next generation heavy-lift vehicle.

Ariane 6 is scheduled to launch from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on Tuesday during a four-hour launch window that opens at 2 p.m. ET. The rocket’s inaugural launch will be broadcast live on ESA’s online channel, and you can also tune in through the feed below.

The expendable Ariane 6 rocket has been in development for more than a decade and is key to maintaining the growth of the European space industry. The launch vehicle comes in two variants, Ariane 62 and 64. Ariane 62 is capable of delivering up to 4.5 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) and 10 metric tons to low Earth orbit (LEO), and is intended to carry government and scientific missions using its two solid boosters. Its more robust counterpart, Ariane 64, is equipped with four solid rocket boosters, and can carry up to 11.5 metric tons to GTO and 20 metric tons to LEO (by comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 can deliver 8.3 metric tons to GTO and 22.8 metric tons to LEO). Ariane 64 is meant for commercial satellite operators.

The 197-foot-tall (60-meter) rocket, developed by French company Arianespace, will serve as a successor to the now-retired Ariane 5. The legendary rocket performed its final flight in July 2023, ending a 27-year run. Ariane 5 was Europe’s main ride to space and, without it, was left scrambling for rockets to deliver its payloads to orbit. After cutting ties with Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, Europe no longer had access to Soyuz rockets. Instead, ESA was forced to turn to private U.S. company SpaceX to deliver its Euclid telescope, which launched on July 1, 2023 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.

Ariane 6 was initially supposed to lift off in 2020, and it was later rescheduled to late 2022, mainly due to the covid-19 pandemic and additional technical hurdles encountered in the rocket’s development.

The rocket’s big debut is finally here. For its maiden flight, Ariane 6 will be carrying a number of small satellites and demonstrating onboard experiments to test its capabilities. At the end of its flight, the rocket’s upper stage will perform a controlled reentry to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere rather than linger in orbit as space trash. Unlike some other next-generation rockets, Ariane 6 is not reusable. Its successor, which is currently in the making, will be partially reusable. The aptly labeled Ariane Next is slated for its own debut launch sometime in the 2030s.

Due to its delayed first flight, Ariane 6 has already amassed a backlog of 30 launches. The majority of the upcoming missions will be to deliver Amazon’s Project Kuiper’s internet satellites to orbit. Just a couple of weeks before liftoff, however, European organization Eumetsat pulled out of an upcoming mission that was slated to launch aboard Ariane 6. Instead, it has chosen to launch its weather satellite, MTG-S1, on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

“This decision was driven by exceptional circumstances” EUMETSAT Director-General Phil Evans said in a statement. “It does not compromise our standard policy of supporting European partners.” Still, it doesn’t reflect well on the European market’s confidence in the Ariane 6 rocket.

There’s a lot riding on the success of the Ariane 6 maiden flight, and hopefully the rocket will rise to the challenge.

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