“last straight line” before start

It is not yetTop, take offBut the countdown has begun: the Ariane 6 rocket, which was supposed to enable Europe to stay in the space race, starts the last test campaign before its maiden flight, postponed to 2023.

Lying in its assembly house at the Kourou space base in French Guiana, the central body of the launch vehicle is to be set up in “next weeks“at the brand new shooting range 800 meters away”combined trials“. These tests that connect the rocket and its launch kit are”the last straight lineof a program launched in 2014, explains the Director of Space Transport at the European Space Agency (ESA), Daniel Neuenschwander, during a recent visit to Kourou.

29 launches have already been sold

Ariane 6, which will have cost almost 4 billion euros, will allow Europe to adapt in particular to the fierce competition from the American SpaceX. The rocket is planned to be 40% cheaper than the Ariane 5 and above all more versatile. A version with two lateral thrusters (boosters), Ariane 62, will allow it to have the carrying capacity of the Russian Soyuz rocket, whose launch from Guyana was interrupted by the invasion of Ukraine. Another with four boosters will replace the Ariane 5 heavy launcher.

It will be able to launch large satellites in the 36,000-kilometer geostationary orbit for which it was designed in 2014, as well as “constellations that have arisen in the meantime“, Welcomes Stéphane Israël, President of Arianespace, the company in charge of operations. Also, “although Ariane 6 has not yet flown, it records commercial successes“With 29 launches already sold, including 18 to hundreds of small satellites in the giant Amazon Kuiper constellation, he recalls.

Ariane 6 and its launch pad were designed to perform 12 launches a year with two weeks between two launches, taking 6 to Ariane 5, which was only launched five or six times a year.

“Cryogenic arms”

For this, the entire industrial architecture has been redesigned: the body of the launcher is mounted horizontally and no longer vertically, mounting with the hood and boosters is done directly on the launch pad, protected by a mobile portal that hangs over the Guyanese canopy from its 90 meters height. and”we have recently passed a step with the tests of the cryogenic arms, which make it possible to bring the fueladds Franck Huiban, Director of Civil Programs at ArianeGroup.

These are disconnected from the rocket just at launch and no longer before. This makes it easier to drain the rocket in the event of an interrupted launch and to reconfigure the rocket in two days, compared to three weeks for Ariane 5. There are still a myriad of tests missing regarding.to qualify“the system, from the control space to the upper stage of the rocket, whose re-ignitable engine has not yet become”fire tests” in Germany.

‘Longer than expected’

In Kourou, during the combined tests, “we test all operational procedures“, including in”deteriorating conditionExplains Franck Huiban, construction helmet on his head. The idea is to reproduce a flight without the rocket taking off. There will thus be more launches of the Vulcain 2.1 engine, “a first short ignition, then a long one, representative of a flightfrom the ground floor, or 500 seconds, according to him.

We have a bomb on the launch pad, we need to make sure we have control over the launch pad», Explains another representative of Arianegroup on condition of anonymity. The first launch of Ariane 6 was originally scheduled for 2020, then until the end of 2022, before being postponed until 2023. For Stéphane Israël, “some things take longer than expected, but we are not in a technical dead end, the big parameters are mastered“It’s not abnormal in the case of a program under development, reassures Daniel Neuenschwander as well.”Several milestones are to be reached by mid-July“says the head of ESA, who will communicate a new calendar on July 13, himself”consolidated before the end of September“.

No doubt the first launch will end on the mat. The last two go back to 1996 (Ariane 5) and 2012 (Vega), “one went well, the other did not“, he recalls in allusion to the explosion during the escape of the first Ariane 5.”If we need more time, we’ll take it.»

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