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Europe’s Ariane-6 rocket blasts off on maiden flight

11-07-2024

GUIANA/ PARIS: Europe’s big new rocket, Ariane-6, has blasted off on its maiden flight. The vehicle set off from a Launchpad in French Guiana about 16:00 local time (19:00 GMT) on a demonstration mission to put a clutch of satellites in orbit.

Crews on the ground in Kourou applauded as the rocket developed at a cost of €4bn (£3.4bn) soared into the sky but after climbing smoothly to the desired altitude, and correctly releasing a number of small satellites, the upper stage of the rocket experienced an anomaly right at the end of the flight.

Computers onboard took the decision to prematurely shut down the auxiliary power unit (APU) that pressurizes the propulsion system.

This left Ariane’s upper stage unable to initiate the burn that is supposed to bring it out of orbit and also set up the final task of the mission to jettison two re-entry capsules.

It was not immediately clear whether controllers would be able to fix the APU problem.

Ariane-6 is intended to be a workhorse rocket that gives European governments and company’s access to space independently from the rest of the world. It already has a backlog of launch contracts, but there are worries its design could limit future prospects.

Like its predecessor, Ariane-5, the new model is expendable, a new rocket is needed for every mission, whereas the latest American vehicles are being built to be wholly or partially reusable.

Nonetheless, European space officials believe Ariane-6 can carve out a niche for itself.

“This is a big moment,” said European Space Agency (ESA) director-general Josef Aschbacher.

“Daily life today really depends on information from satellites, from telecommunications and Earth observation to weather forecasting and disaster management. It is unimaginable for Europe not to have guaranteed, independent access to space,” he told media.

On the surface, the 6 looks very similar to the old 5, but under the skin it harnesses state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques (3D printing, friction stir welding, augmented reality design, etc.) that should result in faster and cheaper production.

Ariane-6 will operate in two configurations:

The “62” will incorporate two solid-fuel side boosters for lifting medium-sized payloads

The “64” will have four strap-on boosters to lift the heaviest satellites on the market

The core stage is supplemented with a second, or upper, stage that will place the payloads in their precise orbits high above the Earth.

This stage can be stopped and restarted multiple times, which is useful when launching large batches of satellites into a constellation, or network. The reignition capability also enables the stage to pull itself back down to Earth, so it won’t become a piece of lingering space junk.

Tuesday’s mission used the Ariane-62 variant where the rocket ascends to an altitude of 580km before starting to offload free-flying payloads.

These are a mix of university and commercial spacecraft. They include two capsules that will endeavor to survive a fiery fall through the atmosphere to splash down in the Pacific.

One of the capsules, which goes by the name of Nyx Bikini, is a small-scale demonstrator from a Franco-German company which aims eventually to develop spacecraft that can transport supplies and people to and from space stations in Earth orbit. (Int’l News Desk)

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