The highly anticipated debut of the Ariane 6 rocket will not happen this year as the European Space Agency (ESA) grapples with getting its heavy-lift launch vehicle off the ground.
ESA shared an update on its rocket woes this week, officially announcing that the launch period for the Ariane 6 rocket will be in 2024 following a reconfiguration of the ground system. The long-delayed rocket was slotted for its inaugural liftoff in late 2023 but its debut will now have to wait even longer following a series of tests that are scheduled to take place in late August and September.
Ariane 6 was undergoing flight qualification tests at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, including a countdown test of the rocket that was held on July 18. The rocket achieved 90% of the test objectives but engineers failed to conduct a short hot firing of the Vulcain 2.1 engine “due to certain measurements exceeding preset limits,” ESA wrote in a report.
As a result, the team behind Ariane 6 scheduled three hot firing tests to take place on August 29, September 1 and 26. “This [final] test, to be carried out using the test model of the rocket installed on its launch pad, will give engineering teams all the results needed to define a launch period for the Ariane 6 inaugural flight in 2024,” ESA wrote.
Ariane 6 has been in the works for a long time, originally slated for its debut in 2020 and then later in 2022. The 197-foot-tall (60-meter) rocket is capable of lifting 10 metric tons to low Earth orbit, 4.5 metric tons to Sun synchronous orbital (SSO) altitudes reaching 500 miles (800 kilometers), and upwards of 10.5 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbits (GEO). French company Arianespace is developing the rocket on behalf of ESA, with Ariane 6 serving as a successor to the now-retired Ariane 5. The legendary rocket performed its final flight in July, ending a 27-year run.
Ariane 5 served as the European market’s main ride to space and, without it, Europe is now scrambling for rocket options that can deliver its payloads to orbit. After cutting ties with Russia following the invasion of Ukraine, Europe was forced to stop relying on the Soyuz rockets for access to space. ESA recently turned to private U.S. company SpaceX to deliver its Euclid telescope, which launched on July 1 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.
Aside from Ariane 6, Arianespace’s Vega-C rocket suffered a malfunction in December 2022 that resulted in its destruction and its launches were suspended. This happened just a few months after Vega-C’s long awaited debut, which was meant to fill the gap in the European market.