Europe returns to orbit with Ariane 6

Europe returns to orbit with Ariane 6

Feature articles |
By Nick Flaherty

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The European Space Agency has launched its long delayed heavy launcher, Ariane 6, marking a key return to orbit.

The first flight of Ariane 6 took off from French Guiana was successful, putting 17 satellites, CubeSats and projects into several orbits.

The heavy launcher can carry up to 100 tonnes into low earth orbit and uses a range of new technologies including 3D printing to keep the cost of the single use system down. While Ariane 6 is a single use launcher, developer ArianeSpace is developing a reusable demonstrator called Prometheus suing very low cost 3D printed engines.

The core stage of Ariane 6 uses solid rocket boosters (P120C) for the first 10 minutes of flight to 200 km, delivering 135 tons of thrust in vacuum. The core stage is powered by the liquid-fueled Vulcain 2.1 –an upgraded engine derived from Ariane 5’s Vulcain 2– and either two or four P120C strap-on solid boosters, to provide additional thrust at liftoff.

The upper stage is powered by the reignitable Vinci engine fueled by cryogenic liquid oxygen and hydrogen. This allows Ariane 6 to reach a range of orbits on a single mission, and deliver more payloads. The upper stage will typically burn one, two or more times to reach targeted orbits. After payload separation, the upper stage will perform a de-orbit maneuver, in order to mitigate space debris.

The key phase is when Ariane 6’s newest feature is put to the test: reignition of the upper stage. In Phase 2, the Vinci engine will re-fire for the first time, changing Ariane 6’s orbit from elliptical to a circular orbit 580 km from Earth’s surface.

Re-igniting an engine in zero gravity may not sound so difficult, but as fuels float freely inside the tanks, it is not simple. The Auxiliary Propulsion Unit (APU) provides a small but steady amount of thrust to cause fuel in the Vinci tanks to settle ensuring it can fire again.

The first re-ignition was followed by the deployment of Ariane 6’s first three satellites; OOV-Cube, Curium One and Robusta-3A, and the activation of two of its onboard experiments, YPSat and Peregrinus.

Then the second batch of satellites will deploy; 3Cat-4, ISTSat and GRBBeta, and the last two experiments were turned on, SIDLOC and Parisat. A third separation command then deployed CURIE and replicator. After this, the upper stage was reignited and deployed its eight satellite missions and activated all onboard experiments.

The final phase in Ariane 6’s inaugural flight required a re-ignition after its longest period “off” in space, initiating its controlled deorbit back through Earth’s atmosphere over the ‘NEMO point’ in the South Pacific.

Moments later, the two reentry capsules onboard separated from the upper stage to make their descent to Earth. A final command passivates the upper stage, removing any energy on board to prevent possible explosions, before it burned up in the atmosphere to avoid space debris.

Ariane 6 is the heavy launch vehicle for Europe, replacing Ariane 5 and working alongside the Vega launcher developed by prime contractor, Avio. Vega-C, a more powerful version of Vega with a larger fairing made its debut in 2022 and a decision last week allows Avio to become the operator and launch service provider rather than ArianeSpace.

The ESA Council also authorised the use of Europe’s Spaceport launch range in French Guiana by four micro- and mini-launchers from European launch service providers Isar Aerospace, MaiaSpace, PLD Space and Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA).

These decisions set the stage for more diverse European launch services in an increasingly competitive environment.

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