The European Space Agency is now targeting late 2023 for the inaugural launch of its next-generation Ariane 6 rocket, in what is yet another delay for the debut of this heavy-lift launch vehicle.
During a press briefing on Wednesday, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher announced that Ariane 6's inaugural flight is now scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2023, while cautioning that the date range is still not final.
The fully stacked 197-foot-tall (60-meter) rocket was recently wheeled to the launch pad at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. Ariane 6 is designed to lift 4.5 tons to Sun synchronous orbital (SSO) altitudes reaching 500 miles (800 km), and upwards of 10.5 tons to geostationary transfer orbits (GEO). French company Arianespace is developing the rocket on behalf of ESA.
The rocket is meant to replace its predecessor, Ariane 5, which is no longer in production. The ambitious project has suffered numerous delays, however. Ariane 6 was originally scheduled to fly in 2020, but the inaugural launch got pushed to the end of 2022, primarily the result of the covid-19 pandemic. ESA did not elaborate on the reason behind the latest delay other than labeling it as “technical challenges.”
“With a project of this magnitude, it needs to be clear that this is a planned date and that the program will still need to successfully and timely achieve a number of key milestones in order for this schedule to be valid,” Aschbacher said during the briefing.
In order to ensure it takes off in late 2023, Aschbacher said the program must meet three key milestones by the first quarter of next year: completing the upper stage’s hot firing test, beginning the hot firing tests of Ariane 6's core stage, followed by a qualification review of the launch system, according to ESA.
ESA needs Ariane 6 to fly soon. The space agency has been scrambling to find rockets after it cut ties with its Russian counterpart following the invasion of Ukraine. ESA’s Euclid infrared space telescope was supposed to launch this year aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, but now the space agency may turn to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to carry its telescope to space instead.
The highly anticipated rocket has some serious lifting to do, with an already-daunting launch schedule that runs from 2023 through to 2029. Earlier this year, Amazon booked the Ariane 6 rocket for 18 launches to transport the company’s internet satellites to low Earth orbit as part of Project Kuiper. In addition to this, Ariane 6 is expected to deliver ESA’s Galileo global navigation satellite system (multiple launches from 2023 to 2025), the Meteosat weather satellites (2024), the Earth Return Orbiter for the Mars sample-return mission (2026), and the upcoming PLATO space telescope (2026), among others.
To meet this workload, Arianespace is building two additional Ariane 6 rockets at its facilities in France and Germany, and the components for these rockets have already been ordered for upcoming flights.
“What is at stake here is European independent access to space,” Aschbacher said. “We are all fully committed to proceeding as speedily as possible to the launch pad.”
Additional reporting by George Dvorsky.