The European Space Agency (ESA) declared success after an Ariane 6 rocket fired its core stage engine in French Guiana for seven minutes on Thursday, clearing one of the few hurdles remaining before the new launch pad can lift off on its first test flight.
The Ariane 6 rocket’s inaugural launch, now scheduled for next year, has been repeatedly postponed since the European Space Agency approved development of the new rocket in 2014. The Ariane 6 main engine fire test was on the launch pad at the Guyana Space Center in South America last week. It is the most important test that has not yet been completed in the list of initial testing of the missile.
The test lasted 426 seconds – just over seven minutes – while a full-sized test model of the Ariane 6 rocket remained on the launch pad. In order for the rocket to actually take off, it will need to light up its four solid-fuel boosters. That was not part of Thursday’s testing plan.
After loading ultra-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant into the Ariane 6 rocket, the launch team in French Guiana gave a “start” to ignite the Vulcan 2.1 rocket’s main engine. The engine was lit at 3:44 PM EDT (20:44 UTC) and throttled to maximum power, producing more than 200,000 pounds of thrust.
Thursday’s test was about one minute shorter than the 470 seconds previously announced by ESA, but officials were satisfied with the result. Several times during testing, the Vulcain 2.1 engine nozzle was rotated to exert the guidance system to control the missile’s thrust.
“Ariane 6 now has a core stage and an upper stage that have undergone all the necessary tests to be ready for the inaugural flight,” said Martin Sion, CEO of ArianeGroup, the joint venture between Airbus and Safran responsible for the development of Ariane 6. rocket.
Joseph Aschbacher, ESA’s director general, said in a statement that engineers “have now carried out every step of the rocket’s flight without leaving Earth… We are back on track towards re-securing Europe’s independent access to space.”
Long way to get here
The Ariane 6 rocket was originally supposed to launch for the first time in 2020, but has now been delayed by four years. The rocket it will replace, Ariane 5, made its final flight in July, leaving Europe without a rocket to launch its own space missions. This has prompted the European Space Agency and the European Union to look abroad to send spacecraft into orbit. SpaceX, a competitor to European launch services provider Arianespace, has won contracts to launch several ESA missions due to Ariane 6 delays.
Engineers designed Ariane 6 as an expendable rocket, with no near-term roadmap for introducing reusable technology into the vehicle. Officials from the European Space Agency, which funded the lion’s share of the rocket’s development, acknowledged that the cost of launching Ariane 6 would be greater than originally expected.
So there are concerns about Ariane 6’s competitiveness with SpaceX in the commercial launch market. Earlier this month, ESA member states agreed to change the way the agency develops new rockets. Instead of continuing the top-down, government-run approach that ESA has used to develop European rockets over the past five decades, the agency plans to shift to a more commercial model to make European companies developing new rockets eligible to compete for ESA launches. shrinkage.
Prior to last week’s long-duration engine test, the Ariane 6 launch team in French Guiana completed a four-second Ariane 6 main engine firing test in September. Last month, the teams completed a complex 36-hour countdown test, which included loading and unloading cryogenic propellant from the rocket’s tanks.
Engineers completed qualification testing of Ariane 6’s Vinci upper stage engine earlier this year on a test stand in Germany. Another test of the Vinci engine is scheduled for December at the German facility, which will include checks of the engine’s response to simulate in-flight anomalies. Officials said this testing does not have to be completed before Ariane 6’s first test flight.
The hydrogen-powered Vinci engine in the Ariane 6 upper stage is one of the rocket’s key new elements. It is designed to be restarted in space, replacing Ariane 5’s upper stage engine which was only able to burn once per mission.
In the coming weeks, ground crews in French Guiana will lower the Ariane 6 rocket used during this year’s tests from the launch pad and return it to a nearby hangar. The core stage and upper stage intended for the first launch of the Ariane 6 rocket will be shipped to French Guiana from factories in France and Germany for final preparations for the flight.
“In this final phase toward the first flight, we still have to perform some additional tests to prove fault tolerance, deliver the first launcher to Kourou, and conduct a launch system qualification review,” Sion said.
Later this week, officials from ESA and ArianeGroup plan to brief the media on the full results of the Ariane 6 test campaign and announce a schedule for the rocket’s maiden flight.