Ariane 6 – What is ESA’s next big rocket?

December 8, 2023

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What is this rocket?

Ariane 6 is the European Space Agency’s (ESA) latest launch rocket under development. The £3.4bn successor to Ariane 5, which retired this July after 27 years of operation. Ariane 6 is hailed to be more adaptable, able to fly more frequently and at significantly reduced cost. Ariane 6 is going to be a huge beast, standing tall at over 60 metres (even larger than their current Ariane 5 rocket which is 50.5m) and weighing nearly 900 tonnes at launch with a full payload. The payload could include valuable spacecraft, cargo, or people that need to be delivered into space. This compares to one and a half Airbus A380 passenger aeroplanes. A large collaboration of several hundred companies, spread over 13 countries across Europe are working with ESA to develop Ariane 6. The inaugural launch is now targeted for 2024.

Why is Ariane different?

Ariane 6 is designed to be flexible, so that it can launch both light and heavy payloads, to a wide range of orbits for many different applications. These could include Earth observation, telecommunication, meteorology, science, and navigation.

Components of Ariane 6

ariane 6 diagram
The Ariane 6 will work in two versions to complete a range of missions

Similar to most rockets, Ariane 6 comprises three stages: two (Ariane 62) or four (Ariane 64) strap-on boosters, and a lower and upper stage – central core.

The lower stage with solid rocket boosters propels Ariane 6 in the first phase of flight which lasts about 10 minutes and delivers approximately 135 tonnes of thrust in vacuum, enabling the rocket to reach about 200 km. The core stage is powered by the liquid-fuelled Vulcain 2.1. This is an upgraded engine derived from Ariane 5’s Vulcain 2 – and either two or four P120C boosters to provide additional thrust at lift-off.

The upper stage is powered by the reignitable Vinci engine, which is fuelled by cryogenic liquid oxygen and hydrogen (cryogenic liquids are liquefied gases that have a normal boiling point below –90°C). This gives Ariane 6 flexibility to reach a range of orbits on a single mission to deliver more payloads. The upper stage will place the payloads in their precise orbits high above the Earth.

After payload separation, the upper stage will perform a de-orbit (moving out of orbit) manoeuvre, to mitigate space debris.

The ogive-shaped (pointed, curved shaped nose cone) fairing at the top of Ariane 6 is available in two sizes: 20 m (A64/A62) and 14 m (A62). Both made of carbon fibre-polymer composite and measuring 5.4 m in diameter. Carbon fibre-polymer composite is a great material for this as it is very strong, light weight, has a high fatigue resistance and poor heat conductor. Thus, the fairing can protect the satellites from the thermal, acoustic, and aerodynamic stresses on the ascent to space.

What is the current stage of development?

On 6th September, 2023 Ariane 6 became one step closer to launch, following a brief (4 second!) successful engine test, at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America. This will be followed up with a longer engine test next month.

Conclusion

Many more tests will be keeping rocket scientists and engineers busy for the coming months as they prepare for the first launch, hopefully in 2024.

For more detail on rockets and how they get their payloads to orbit, sign up for one of our courses today. Rocketry features in Mission Astro ‘The Escape from the Blue Marble’ course and our Certificate in Space Science. Our in-depth interviews with Dhara Patel and Athena Brensberger will excite and inform!

This post was written by Dr Heather Campbell for Mission Astro.

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