Friday, July 19, 2024

Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket successfully launches for first time

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KOUROU: Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket successfully blasted off for the first time on Tuesday, releasing satellites into orbit and restoring the continent’s independent access to space.

European space efforts have suffered a series of blows, including four years of delays to Ariane 6, that have robbed the continent of its own way to launch missions into space for the past year.

But with the successful inaugural flight of Europe’s most powerful rocket yet, European space chiefs were keen to move on from recent setbacks.

“It’s a historic day for Europe,“ European Space Agency head Josef Aschbacher said.

“Europe is back,“ announced Philippe Baptiste, head of France’s CNES space agency.

Surrounded by jungle on the South American coast, the rocket launched from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana at 4pm local time (1900 GMT).

Initially delayed for an hour by a small problem that was noticed in the morning, the rocket lifted off into clear skies.

– ‘Not yet complete’ –

The crew in the Jupiter control room, located 17 kilometres (10 miles) from the launch site, portrayed calm at first.

Then head of operations Raymond Boyce announced “propulsion nominal”, meaning that the launch was going as planned.

Applause rang out in the room.

Even louder applause came a little over an hour later when the rocket successfully delivered microsatellites into orbit.

NASA chief Bill Nelson on X welcomed the “giant leap forward” for the ESA.

But Martin Sion, the CEO of the rocket’s manufacturer ArianeGroup, emphasised that “the mission is not yet complete”.

It will only be fully completed when the reusable Vinci engine in the rocket’s upper stage has fallen back into Earth’s atmosphere.

This is expected around three hours after liftoff.

– ‘Magical’ –

When it launched, Ariane 6 carried with it the hopes of European sovereignty in space.

Since the last flight of its workhorse predecessor, Ariane 5, a year ago, Europe has had to rely on rivals such as Elon Musk’s US firm SpaceX.

Selected by the ESA back in 2014, Ariane 6 will able to place satellites in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometres above Earth, as well as satellite constellations a few hundreds of kilometres up.

The first flight was carrying a payload of university microsatellites, various experiments and two atmospheric re-entry capsules that will be jettisoned near the end of the mission.

The last of three ignitions of the Vinci engine will be to shoot the Vinci engine back down into the Pacific Ocean, so it does not contribute to the space debris cluttering Earth’s orbit.

Successful inaugural flights are by no means guaranteed.

Historically, nearly half of the first launches of new rockets have ended in failure. That includes Ariane 5, which exploded moments after liftoff in 1996.

But out of 117 launches over nearly 20 years, only one other Ariane 5 flight completely failed.

On the other side of the world, thousands of people in the French city of Toulouse watched the lift-off on a big screen while sitting on a lawn at the Cite de l’Espace museum.

Catherine Gerard, 56, said she was delighted to witness “something a bit magical”.

– Skyrocketing competition –

Space has become big business and competition is soaring, particularly from SpaceX’s fully re-usable Falcon 9 rockets which now launch around twice a week.

Yet Europe has recently found itself without an independent way to give lucrative satellites a ride into space.

Russia pulled its Soyuz rockets, long used for European launches at Kourou, after Moscow invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Later that year, Europe’s Vega-C light launcher was grounded after a launch failure. Ariane 6 delays compounded the crisis.

After months of analysing the rocket’s inaugural launch, a first commercial flight is expected before the end of the year.

The next challenge will be to “successfully ramp up” the number of flights, ESA space transportation director Toni Tolker-Nielsen said.

Six launches are scheduled for next year, and eight for 2026.

The rocket has an order book of 29 missions, many of which are to deploy some of Amazon’s Kuiper constellation of internet satellites.

But just weeks before the launch, the programme suffered a surprise setback. Europe’s weather satellite operator EUMETSAT cancelled plans to use Ariane 6 in favour of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, citing “exceptional circumstances”.

ESA chief Josef Aschbacher said the European operator’s decision to ditch the European rocket was “difficult to understand”.

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