Europe's Ariane 6 takes rocket science seriously by testing patience before engines

Four seconds of fire and fury to be followed by eight minutes then... a launch in 2024?

Arianespace's delayed Ariane 6 rocket is scheduled to take its next step toward launch today with a brief firing of the main stage Vulcain 2.1 engine.

The latest try-out follows a lengthy and increasingly delayed test campaign leading to a hoped-for launch in 2024. During a briefing, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher declined to be any more specific about the launch date – a prudent move considering the delays suffered by the vehicle to date.

Aschbacher admitted in a recent LinkedIn post that the first launch had slipped into 2024.

The test at Arianespace's launch site in Korou, French Guiana, will consist of a four-second firing of the main stage engine and form part of a campaign to qualify the launch system as a whole, including its ground installations.

Should all go well, another hot fire lasting approximately eight minutes will be conducted on October 3. This will cover the expected flight phase of the core stage.

Other tests planned for the end of 2023 include hot fires of the upper stage at the German aerospace agency's rocket engine test center in Lampoldshausen. These are intended to see how things work in what ESA called "degraded cases."

Ariane 6 is the replacement for the Ariane 5, which made its final flight in July 2023, carrying two telecommunications satellites into orbit. Its core stage is powered by a liquid-fueled Vulcain 2.1 engine, an upgrade of Ariane 5's Vulcain 2. It also has either two or four P120C strap-on solid boosters.

A reignitable Vinci engine powers the upper stage. On September 1, engineers at Lampoldshausen completed a hot fire that ESA described as "representative of the inaugural flight."

During a briefing on September 4, Martin Sion, executive chairman of ArianeGroup, boasted: "If this had been a flight, this phase of the flight would have been successful," before cautioning that the data gathered during the test still needed to be thoroughly analyzed.

The development of Ariane 6 has been fraught, and the delays will mean a lengthy gap between the end of the Ariane 5 program and the maiden launch of its successor. During the briefing, Aschbacher put the current cost at "around" €4 billion ($4.3 billion).

Sion added that the Ariane 6 delays had created significant overheads for ArianeGroup – Arianespace is a launch service provider – and said that in the contract with ESA, "we bear our risks." He did not, however, put a figure on those costs caused by the delays.

Ariane 6 was supposed to have had its maiden flight in 2020 and achieved "full operational capability" in 2023. It has managed neither so far, leaving Europe with a significant gap in its heavy lift capabilities. The overall cost at a 2016 program review was €3 billion ($3.2 billion). ®

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