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Ariane 6: “last straight” before take off from Guyana

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Although the first launch has been postponed to 2023, the Ariane 6 program is entering its final phase. Assembly of the launcher continues in an unprecedented fashion in Kourou, French Guiana.



It is not yet the “Top, take-off” but the countdown has begun: the Ariane 6 rocket, which should allow Europe to remain in the space race, begins the final test campaign before its maiden flight, postponed to 2023 Lying in its meeting room at the Kourou space base in French Guiana, the launcher’s central body will be erected in the “next few weeks” on the brand new launch pad located 800 meters from here for the “combined tests”.

These tests combining the rocket and its launch package are the “final straight” of a program launched in 2014, explains European Space Agency (ESA) space transport director Daniel Neuenschwander during a recent visit to Kourou. Ariane 6, which will have cost almost 4 billion euros, will have to allow Europe to adapt in particular to the fierce competition from the American SpaceX.

The rocket should be 40% less expensive than the Ariane 5 and above all more versatile. A version with two side thrusters (boosters), Ariane 62, will allow it to have the carrying capacity of the Russian Soyuz rocket, whose launch from Guyana was interrupted by the invasion of Ukraine. Another with four boosters will replace the Ariane 5 heavy thrower.

It will be able to launch large satellites into geostationary orbit at 36,000 kilometers, for which it was designed in 2014, as well as the “constellations that have emerged in the meantime”, welcomes Stéphane Israël, president of Arianespace, the company responsible for its operation. In addition, “although Ariane 6 has not yet flown, it has seen commercial successes” with 29 launches already sold, including 18 for hundreds of small satellites in Amazon’s giant Kuiper constellation, he recalls. Ariane 6 and its launch pad were designed to be able to make 12 launches a year with two weeks between two launches, when it took 6 for Ariane 5, which was only launched five or six times a year. .

For this the entire industrial architecture has been redesigned: the body of the launcher is mounted horizontally and no longer vertically, the assembly with the fairing and the boosters takes place directly on the launch pad, protected by a mobile gantry, which overlooks the roof of the Guyana from its 90 meters high.

And “we have recently successfully taken a step forward with cryogenic arm testing that allows fuel to be introduced,” adds Franck Huiban, director of civilian programs at ArianeGroup. These disconnect from the rocket only on launch and no longer before. This makes it easier to empty the rocket in the event of an aborted launch and reconfigure the rocket in two days, compared to Ariane 5’s three weeks.

There are still a myriad of tests to be carried out to “qualify” the system, from the control room to the upper stage of the rocket, whose re-ignitable engine has yet to undergo “fire tests” in Germany. In Kourou, during the combined tests, “we will test all operating procedures”, even in “degraded mode”, explains Franck Huiban, construction helmet on his head.

The idea is to reproduce a flight without the rocket taking off. There will then be several ignitions of the Vulcain 2.1 engine, “a first short ignition, then a long one, representative of a flight” of the main stage, ie 500 seconds, according to him. “We have a bomb on the launch pad, we need to make sure we are in control of the launcher,” explains another Arianegroup representative on condition of anonymity.

The first launch of Ariane 6 was initially planned for 2020, then for the end of 2022 before being postponed to 2023. For Stéphane Israel “some things are taking longer than expected but we are not in a technical dead end, the main parameters I’m under control. “

This is not abnormal in the case of a developing program, Daniel Neuenschwander also reassures. “Several milestones must be reached by mid-July”, says the manager of ESA who will communicate a new program on July 13, in turn “consolidated by the end of September”.

There is no doubt that the inaugural launch will hit the carpet. The last two date back to 1996 (Ariane 5) and 2012 (Vega), “one went well, the other didn’t”, he recalls referring to the in-flight explosion of the first Ariane 5 “If we need more time, we ‘ I ‘ll take it.”

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