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Europe's Ariane 6 rocket successfully launches for first time

Europe's Ariane 6 rocket successfully launches for first time

Wednesday, July 10, 2024, 15:42 GMT+7
Europe's Ariane 6 rocket successfully launches for first time
Europe's new big Ariane 6 rocket launches into clear skies in Kourou, French Guiana. Photo: AFP

Europe's new Ariane 6 rocket successfully blasted off for the first time on Tuesday, releasing satellites into orbit and restoring the continent's independent access to space.

European space efforts have suffered a series of blows, including four years of delays to Ariane 6, that have robbed the continent of its own way to launch missions into space for the past year.

But with the successful inaugural flight of Europe's most powerful rocket yet, European space chiefs were keen to move on from recent setbacks.

"It's a historic day for Europe," European Space Agency head Josef Aschbacher said.

"Europe is back," announced Philippe Baptiste, head of France's CNES space agency.

Anticipation was high for the first launch, which is hoped to bring an end to a difficult time for European space efforts. Photo: AFP

Anticipation was high for the first launch, which is hoped to bring an end to a difficult time for European space efforts. Photo: AFP

Surrounded by jungle on the South American coast, the rocket launched from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana at 4 pm local time (1900 GMT).

Initially delayed for an hour by a small problem that was noticed in the morning, the rocket lifted off into clear skies.

The mission faced a slight setback as the rocket deviated from its trajectory towards the end of the flight, failing to carry out its planned re-entry into the earth's atmosphere and landing in the Pacific.

But that did not dampen the spirits of European space chiefs, whose objective was to put satellites into orbit.

"It's a great success despite the slight disappointment" at the end, said Walther Pelzer, head of Germany's DLR space agency.

Spectators watch Ariane 6 take-off. Photo: AFP

Spectators watch Ariane 6 take-off. Photo: AFP

'Not yet complete'

The crew in the Jupiter control room, located 17 kilometers (10 miles) from the launch site, portrayed calm at first.

Then head of operations Raymond Boyce announced "propulsion nominal", meaning that the launch was going as planned.

Applause rang out in the room.

Even louder applause came a little over an hour later when the rocket successfully delivered microsatellites into orbit.

NASA chief Bill Nelson on X welcomed the "giant leap forward" for the ESA.

But Martin Sion, the CEO of the rocket's manufacturer ArianeGroup, emphasised that "the mission is not yet complete".

It will only be fully completed when the reusable Vinci engine in the rocket's upper stage has fallen back into Earth's atmosphere.

That was expected around three hours after liftoff.

Europe's Ariane 6 rocket /  AFP

Europe's Ariane 6 rocket. Photo: AFP

'Magical'

When it launched, Ariane 6 carried with it the hopes of European sovereignty in space.

Since the last flight of its workhorse predecessor, Ariane 5, a year ago, Europe has had to rely on rivals such as Elon Musk's US firm SpaceX.

Selected by the ESA back in 2014, Ariane 6 will able to place satellites in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above Earth, as well as satellite constellations a few hundreds of kilometers up.

Ariane 6's first launch, originally planned for 2020, is hoped to bring an end to a difficult time for European space efforts. Photo: AFP

Ariane 6's first launch, originally planned for 2020, is hoped to bring an end to a difficult time for European space efforts. Photo: AFP

The first flight was carrying a payload of university microsatellites, various experiments and two atmospheric re-entry capsules that will be jettisoned near the end of the mission.

The last of three ignitions of the Vinci engine will be to shoot the Vinci engine back down into the Pacific Ocean, so it does not contribute to the space debris cluttering Earth's orbit.

Successful inaugural flights are by no means guaranteed.

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 117 launches over nearly 20 years, only one other Ariane 5 flight completely failed.

On the other side of the world, thousands of people in the French city of Toulouse watched the lift-off on a big screen while sitting on a lawn at the Cite de l'Espace museum.

Catherine Gerard, 56, said she was delighted to witness "something a bit magical".

Europe's Ariane 6 rocket ahead of blastoff in French Guiana. Photo: AFP

Europe's Ariane 6 rocket ahead of blastoff in French Guiana. Photo: AFP

Skyrocketing competition

Space has become big business and competition is soaring, particularly from SpaceX's fully re-usable Falcon 9 rockets, which now launch around twice a week.

Yet Europe has recently found itself without an independent way to give lucrative satellites a ride into space.

Russia pulled its Soyuz rockets, long used for European launches at Kourou, after Moscow carried out its attack on Ukraine in 2022.

Later that year, Europe's Vega-C light launcher was grounded after a launch failure. Ariane 6 delays compounded the crisis.

After months of analysing the rocket's inaugural launch, a first commercial flight is expected before the end of the year.

The next challenge will be to "successfully ramp up" the number of flights, ESA space transportation director Toni Tolker-Nielsen said.

Rocket launches since 1957. Photo: AFP

Rocket launches since 1957. Photo: AFP

Six launches are scheduled for next year, and eight for 2026.

The rocket has an order book of 29 missions, many of which are to deploy some of Amazon's Kuiper constellation of internet satellites.

But just weeks before the launch, the program suffered a surprise setback. Europe's weather satellite operator EUMETSAT cancelled plans to use Ariane 6 in favour of SpaceX's Falcon 9, citing "exceptional circumstances".

ESA chief Josef Aschbacher said the European operator's decision to ditch the European rocket was "difficult to understand".

AFP

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