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Countdown to first launch of Europe's Ariane 6 rocket

Ariane 6's maiden flight will carry 17 different 'passengers', including 11 university micro-satellites, as well as re-entry capsules and small scientific experiments
Ariane 6's maiden flight will carry 17 different 'passengers', including 11 university micro-satellites, as well as re-entry capsules and small scientific experiments.

After four years of delays, Europe's new Ariane 6 rocket is set to blast off for the first time on Tuesday, carrying with it the continent's hopes of regaining independent access to space.

The inaugural flight of the European Space Agency's (ESA) most powerful rocket yet is scheduled to launch from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

The planned time for liftoff was delayed by one hour to 4pm local time (1900 GMT) after routine checks revealed a "small" data issue which has been resolved, the ESA said on X.

Earlier in the day, the giant metal structure housing the rocket called the "mobile gantry" was rolled and moved away, unsheathing the 56-meter (183 feet) behemoth in light rain, an AFP journalist observed.

A 10am forecast said that "Weather is GO for fueling", the ESA said on X.

This gave the green light for filling the rocket's tanks with the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that will propel it into space.

From that point, any physical intervention would force the tanks to be emptied, requiring a 48-hour launch postponement, the ESA's launch base project manager Michel Rizzi said.

Rocket crisis

Many will be nervously watching the launch, hoping it can bring an end to a difficult era for European space efforts.

Ariane 6's first launch is scheduled from Europe's spaceport in French Guiana on Tuesday
Ariane 6's first launch is scheduled from Europe's spaceport in French Guiana on Tuesday.

Since the last flight of the rocket's workhorse predecessor, Ariane 5, a year ago, Europe has been unable to launch satellites or other missions into space without relying on rivals such as Elon Musk's US firm SpaceX.

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 its 117 launches over nearly 20 years, only one other flight would fail.

Everyone at the Kourou launch site, which is surrounded by jungle on the South American coast, is hoping history does not repeat for Ariane 6.

Tony dos Santos, the ESA's Kourou technical manager, said that teams on the ground would only be able to "breathe our first sigh of relief when the first satellites have been released" an hour and six minutes after liftoff.

The European Space Agency's most powerful rocket yet is scheduled to finally blast off from Europe's spaceport in the French Guianan town of Kourou
The European Space Agency's most powerful rocket yet is scheduled to finally blast off from Europe's spaceport in the French Guianan town of Kourou.

The mission will be considered a success after the rocket's reusable upper stage splashes down into the Pacific Ocean.

Franck Saingou, Ariane 6 launch system architect, said there had been so many rehearsals that it all feels "routine—except this time it's the real thing".

Concealed in a nearby bunker, more than 200 experts in the launch center will scrutinize the rocket until liftoff, ready to interrupt the countdown to solve any problems, he added.

They will be in constant contact with the Jupiter control room, the hub of communication between the teams—and data sent from the rocket.

A large number of armed forces will also watch over the launch, including three fighter jets deployed to deter any curious aircraft nearby.

Europe's 'return' to space

A successful flight would mark Europe's "return" to the space scene, said ESA space transportation director Toni Tolker-Nielsen.

  • Europe's Ariane 6 rocket
    Europe's Ariane 6 rocket.
  • Ariane 6 crosses the Atlantic in a boat from Europe to French Guiana
    Ariane 6 crosses the Atlantic in a boat from Europe to French Guiana.
  • The main space rockets
    The main space rockets.

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 due to a launch failure. Delays to Ariane 6's first flight—originally scheduled for 2020—further compounded the crisis.

Ariane 6 is scheduled for one more launch this year, six in 2025, then eight in 2026.

The launch of Ariane 6 is the first step towards "changing the future of the European space transportation ecosystem", ESA chief Josef Aschbacher said on X.

The maiden flight will carry 17 different "passengers", including 11 university micro-satellites, as well as re-entry capsules and small scientific experiments.

Gareth Dorrian, a space science researcher at the UK's University of Birmingham, told AFP that "the first launch of any new rocket is always fraught".

But Ariane 5 started with explosive failure and "went on to become one of the most successful launchers in history", he added.

© 2024 AFP

Citation: Countdown to first launch of Europe's Ariane 6 rocket (2024, July 9) retrieved 13 July 2024 from https://phys.org/news/2024-07-countdown-europe-ariane-rocket.html
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