Ariane 6 is finally on the launch pad, but won’t get off the ground anytime soon

A delay that does not bode well for Europe’s independence in space.

After years of technical hassle and very high costs, the first Ariane 6 vehicle is finally fully assembled; according to an ESA press release, since 12 October the machine has been quietly waiting for its time on the Kourou launch pad in French Guiana. But be careful not to declare victory too early; the departure of this heavy launch vehicle, which will become the new spearhead of European aerospace, has recently been postponed again. Another blow to the space ambitions of the Old Continent.

The news was announced by Josef Aschbacher, Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA), during a briefing in mid-October. He said that Ariane 6 it wouldn’t move an inch before the end of 2023. Neither he nor his colleagues have been very explicit about the reasons for this delay; they only mentioned “technical challenges”.

He also specified that this date it was in no way a guarantee, because the agency still has a lot of work to do before reaching this stage. “ With a project of this magnitude, it should be clear that this date is a forecast. For this scheme to be valid, the program will need to go through and validate a number of important steps in due course. warns.

A pitcher with a chaotic path

If he’s so careful, it’s because this isn’t the first time Ariane 6 has landed a rabbit; as is often the case in the aerospace industry, it has already suffered many delays. Construction began in 2017, with the aim of making an inaugural flight in 2020 with a budget of 3.8 billion euros.

And this very ambitious timeline was quickly shattered, in part due to the Covid-19 pandemic which greatly disrupted the program’s logistics; in October 2020 the agency announced that the final deadline would be postponed again, this time to the second quarter of 2022. With this new delay, which will immobilize the rocket at least until 2023, the total delay from the start of the works is now about three years.

A delay that is far from ideal in the current context. Because the concern is that even when it’s ready, this launcher’s future doesn’t look particularly glorious. Although the actual construction began in 2017, the Ariane 6 project dates back ten years. It was a state-of-the-art launch vehicle at the time … but the landscape has changed a lot since then.

Meanwhile, the entire industry has been transformed under the impetus of SpaceX, which has outstandingly standardized with its reusable launchers and has participated in redefining the terms of the public-private partnership in space. Today, the entire industry is moving towards this new paradigm. However, poor Ariane 6 is still a disposable launcher; a model that already seems dated, while the launcher is still far from its maiden voyage …

Without Ariane 6 or Soyuz, ESA turns to SpaceX

The story of Ariane 6 therefore increasingly resembles a “bad strategic choice”, to use the words of Bruno Le Maire. And each time the project is delayed, the consequences of this mistake become more and more important for ESA and the entire European space industry.

Fortunately, the agency has already begun to raise the bar; to compensate for this lack of foresight, it is currently developing Maïa, a new latest generation launcher which this time will be partially reusable. ESA staff confirms that Maïa and Ariane will be 6 years old ” complementary “, But this would already require the two vehicles to enter service.

Space: Europe will (finally) develop its own reusable launch vehicle

Meanwhile, ESA finds itself in a complicated situation as it is currently deprived of the Russian Soyuz. Traditionally, these launchers occupy a significant place in the agency’s logistics. But the agency was forced to find another solution after the cooling of relations with Roscosmos in the context of the war in Ukraine.

For example, it has signed a contract with SpaceX to put Euclid, its future dark energy combat satellite, into orbit. And the more time passes, the closer ESA seems to be with Elon Musk’s company, which already works closely with NASA. It will therefore be interesting to see how this relationship evolves.

European space travel is likely to rely on SpaceX on a regular basis over the next few years, at least until Ariane 6 finally takes off. The rest will depend entirely on the performance of the pitcher and his successor Maïa. If they live up to expectations, they may be able to bring European aerospace back to the fore.

What future for European space travel?

But if these two vehicles are left behind, it is possible that the agency will follow NASA’s example by completely halting the construction of its own vehicles. If necessary, it could delegate this task to other European companies … or even make a long-term commitment to SpaceX, which would be far from negligible.

With its Falcon 9 launchers and soon its revolutionary spaceship, SpaceX is one step ahead of Arianespace. © SpaceX

Indeed, all specialists agree that space will play an increasingly important role in global geopolitics for many reasons. We can mention, for example, the occupation of the Earth’s orbit or the colonization of the Moon, which involves great scientific problems, but also and above all economic, military and political.

Gold, the ability to throw your own equipment is the basis of all these activities ; if Europe does not have its own launch vehicle, it also means that it must give up some of its autonomy, with all that that entails for its geopolitical influence against entities such as the United States and China.

Suffice it to say that, despite Aschbacher’s caution, Arianespace and ESA are expected by the end of 2023; if the launch of Ariane 6 and the development of Maïa are delayed for several years, Europe risks having great difficulties in playing a leading role in space.

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