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New rocket on course for maiden flight this summer

Arianespace's animation showing the launch of its next-gen Ariane 6 rocket.
A graphic imagining of the first launch of the Ariane 6 rocket. Arianespace

The European Space Agency (ESA) is planning to fly its new heavy-lift Ariane 6 rocket for the first time this summer.

Those working on the project — including ESA, the French space agency CNES, and the main contractor ArianeGroup — are planning the get the new rocket airborne on its maiden mission in the first two weeks of July.

Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA, confirmed the time frame in a post on social media on Tuesday, saying: “Happy to announce that as we get nearer to liftoff of Ariane6, teams at ESA, CNES, and ArianeGroup have narrowed down the time period for the first attempt for launch: the first two weeks of July.” Aschbacher added that a specific target date will be announced in June.

Happy to announce that as we get nearer to liftoff of #Ariane6, teams at @ESA, @CNES and @ArianeGroup have narrowed down the time period for the first attempt for launch: the first two weeks of July. 🚀

The tentative date for the first launch attempt will be announced in June…

— Josef Aschbacher (@AschbacherJosef) May 21, 2024

Tuesday’s update to the launch window was the first refinement of the planned launch schedule since November 2023, when the agency said it expected the rocket to fly for the first time between the middle of June and the end of July of 2024, SpaceNews noted.

Ariane 6 has been in development since 2014, and the maiden flight was originally planned for 2020, but the project has suffered a number of delays. The new rocket replaces the Ariane 5, which took its final flight in July 2023.

Arianespace is building two versions of the Ariane 6. The first, Ariane 62, will fly with two strap-on boosters, while the more powerful Ariane 64 will fly with four. The rocket will stand at more than 60 meters (197 feet) tall and weigh almost 900 tons when launched with a full payload — a similar weight to one-and-a-half Airbus A380 passenger aircraft.

Ariane 6’s upper-stage engine, called Vinci, uses liquid hydrogen and oxygen. It can be stopped and restarted multiple times, making it ideal for missions in which multiple satellites need to be placed into different orbits.

In April, Aschbacher called the first launch of the Ariane 6 the “big event of the year” for Europe in terms of space endeavors, though he cautioned that “statistically, there’s a 47% chance the first flight may not succeed or happen exactly as planned. We’ll do everything we can to make it a successful flight, but I think it’s something that we have to keep in mind.”

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