First Ariane 6 rocket launches, as Europe rejoins a market dominated by Musk’s SpaceX

In Europe

European Space Agency launches Ariane 6 rocket on July 9, 2024.

Courtesy: ESA

The powerful European-built Ariane 6 rocket made its long-awaited liftoff on Tuesday, as the region returned to a launch market dominated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Ariane 6, standing over 200 feet tall and powered by its Vulcain engine and a pair of boosters, launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 3 p.m. ET.

The rocket is a combined effort of about $4.5 billion overseen by the European Space Agency (ESA) and built by ArianeGroup – an Airbus and Safran joint venture. Thirteen nations contribute to the Ariane 6 program.

It’s the latest in a European rocket lineage dating to the 1970s, and succeeds the Ariane 5, which launched 117 times until it retired last year. Ariane 6 comes in two versions: Ariane 62, with two solid rocket boosters that can deliver as much as 10,000 kilograms of cargo to low Earth orbit (LEO); and Ariane 64, a model with four solid rockets boosters which can carry as many as 21,000 kilograms to LEO.

The European Space Agency (ESA) satellite launcher Ariane 6 rocket moves to the launch pad prior its lift off at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, on July 9, 2024. 

Jody Amiet | Afp | Getty Images

In the launch market, Ariane 6 falls in the “heavy” class of rockets.

Ariane 6’s debut flight is a demonstration mission for ESA, and will haul a variety of small satellites and spacecraft. After liftoff, the flight will last nearly three hours before it completes the deployment of 11 spacecraft, and also includes a key series of tests of the rocket’s upper stage engine.

Delayed debut

The European Space Agency (ESA) satellite launcher Ariane 6 rocket is seen prior to its maiden launch at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, on July 9, 2024. 

Jody Amiet | Afp | Getty Images

Ariane 6’s first voyage has been postponed by years, delays fueled by technical issues, the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Following its full-scale invasion of its neighbor, Russia suspended all European mission launches on its Soyuz rockets. A smaller alternative European rocket, the Vega-C, has been grounded since a failed 2022 launch — and isn’t expected to fly again until later this year at the earliest.

Despite rising costs and long delays, European leaders continue to support the Ariane 6 program, stressing the importance of the continent having its own access to space – rather than relying on SpaceX.

But Europe has already had to turn to SpaceX several times out of necessity, as the company enjoys a near monopoly on the global launch market.

SpaceX’s reusable and comparatively low-priced Falcon 9 rockets offer a compelling alternative to spacecraft that have been waiting for Ariane 6 to begin flying. Already, high-profile ESA missions such as the EarthCARE spacecraft, Euclid telescope, and Galileo satellites have launched on SpaceX rockets.

And last month, European weather satellite operator EUMETSAT made the “exceptional” decision to swap an upcoming planned satellite launch from Ariane 6 to Falcon 9 – a choice that was met with derision from other European officials.

“I am impatiently waiting to understand what reasons could have led Eumetsat to such a decision,” Philippe Baptiste, leader of France’s space agency CNES, wrote in a post on social media.

“How far will we, Europeans, go in our naivety?” Baptiste added.

Notably, while most U.S. companies seeking to challenge SpaceX are leaning into reusable rocket technology, Ariane 6 is expendable like its predecessor – meaning each vehicle is a one-off that’s discarded after the mission.

It’s not just Europe’s desire for its own space access driving Ariane 6. The rocket has another crucial customer waiting for launches: Amazon. The American tech giant has ordered a staggering 97 rocket launches from five companies, nearly a fifth of which were won by Arianespace to fly Project Kuiper internet satellites on Ariane 6.

Read More: First Ariane 6 rocket launches, as Europe rejoins a market dominated by Musk’s SpaceX

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