Europe hopes to end ‘launcher crisis’ with planned Ariane 6 takeoff
This article was originally published in Spanish

The rocket is scheduled for a test flight on Tuesday 9 July between 8 pm and 12 midnight European time, but has faced several holdups along the way.

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A successful launch of the Ariane 6 rocket in French Guiana on Tuesday could allow the European Space Agency (ESA) to breathe a sigh of relief, making what its director calls the “launcher crisis” a thing of the past.

With the retirement of Ariane 5 in July 2023, Europe was no longer able to travel into space, needing to rely on third parties to send satellites into orbit.

On top of years of delay in the construction of Ariane 6 and technical problems, there was the failure of the Vega-C rocket, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Russia’s war in Ukraine meaning Europe no longer had access to using Soyuz rockets.

“With the launch of Ariane 6, we are regaining access to space for Europe. And this is fundamental,” ESA director Josef Aschbacher told Euronews from the Kourou Spaceport in French Guiana.

“We have Ariane 6…we have Vega 6 return the flight planned for the end of the year. We may get one or the other, microlaunchers being launched this year. This is a really important moment,” he said.

If Ariane 6 is a success, “it will increase the resilience of Europe’s space domain in a geopolitical environment of longer-term risks and threats,” writes Elcano Royal Institute researcher Félix Arteaga.

It will be key to allowing “the European industrial sector to compete with other commercial and governmental satellites in the short and medium term,” he added.

The new European launcher will allow the continent to put satellites into orbit for earth observation, navigation, communication or even military purposes.

Launches in the hands of Elon Musk

The delays to Ariane 6 have prompted Europe to send satellites into space with private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

This is a decision that the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, said he took reluctantly.

“I am not happy with what happened, there were launches to be carried out and the timetable was not respected,” he said in November 2023.

“We’ve seen the European Union and Europe at large being increasingly aware of the need to be more autonomous in certain strategic areas,” said Matja Rencelj, an analyst at the European Space Policy Institute. “We want to launch (satellites) on our own terms,” he said.

But we may not be there yet. A few days ago, Europe’s meteorological satellite organisation chose Musk’s company to launch one of its satellites.

“This decision was driven by exceptional circumstances,” EUMETSAT director-general Phil Evans said in a statement.

“It does not compromise our standard policy of supporting European partners, and we look forward to a successful SpaceX launch for this masterpiece of European technology,” he added.

Aschbacher described the decision as “surprising” in a social media post on the platform X (formerly Twitter), especially as it comes just days before Ariane 6’s test flight.

Despite this first setback, Ariane 6 already has as many as 30 orders, 18 of them to launch Amazon’s Kuiper satellite constellation, a project to bring the internet to remote spaces.

According to Rencelj, the launch of Ariane 6 is a first step in Europe’s space strategy.

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“The launcher at the end of the day is a means to an end and is really increasing our ambition in using space, obviously to the benefit of European citizens and European policymakers,” he said.

That is why both ESA and ArianeGroup have high hopes for a project that is also designed to carry private satellites into space.

In the future, Aschbacher said they would like smaller or larger companies to develop their own launcher.

“I would be the anchor customer and buy launch services from these companies, so not…developing (ESA’s) own launcher in the future after Ariane 6,” the agency’s director said.

Ariane 6 is the first new European model in 30 years. Thirteen European countries were involved in its development, and it cost €4 billion.

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