LOGAN, Utah — The European Space Agency acknowledged Aug. 8 what most of the space industry had long expected: the first flight of the Ariane 6 will not happen this year.
In a LinkedIn post, Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA, said that the inaugural flight of the long-delayed rocket had been rescheduled for some time next year after a series of engine tests planned in the coming weeks.
“With this,” he wrote, ESA, vehicle prime contractor ArianeGroup, Arianespace and the French space agency CNES, “confirm that the inaugural launch is now targeted for 2024.”
Since early this year Aschbacher and other ESA officials had declined to offer an updated schedule for the vehicle’s inaugural flight. The last formal update ESA provided was in October 2022, when the agency set a launch date of the fourth quarter of 2023.
ESA had declined to provide an update because officials said they wanted to see progress on a series of engine and other vehicle tests. One such test was an Ariane 6 countdown test in July at the spaceport in French Guiana. The vehicle was loaded with propellants and went through a simulated countdown to test launch procedures.
That July 18 test was scheduled to conclude with a brief firing of the Vulcain 2.1 engine in the Ariane 6 core stage. However, ESA said in a July 25 statement that the firing could not take place “as time ran out.”
In a more detailed statement Aug. 8, ESA said the automated countdown was aborted “due to certain measurements exceeding preset limits.” The firing was later abandoned because the length of the test led to a shortage of liquid oxygen propellant.
That hot-firing has been rescheduled for Aug. 29. ESA said the gap between the tests allows for a two-week summer break for personnel and to make repairs in a basin used for burning off excess hydrogen that was damaged by water.
A test of the upper-stage engine, at a facility in Lampoldshausen, Germany, was also postponed in late July because of software anomalies, ESA said. That test has been rescheduled for as soon as Sept. 1.
Following those tests, ESA said there will be a long-duration static-fire test of the Vulcain 2.1 engine at the Kourou spaceport, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 26. Only after that test, the agency said, will it be ready to announce a launch date for the inaugural Ariane 5.
“However,” the ESA statement added, “the inaugural flight is now scheduled for 2024.”
The slip of the Ariane 6 debut to 2024 was widely anticipated. In an earnings call in May, executives with OHB, the German company that is a supplier to the Ariane 6, said they expected the rocket to make its first launch “early next year” but not before.
That first Ariane 6 launch will carry a number of smallsat payloads, including a NASA-supported cubesat called Cubesat Radio Interferometry Experiment, or CURIE. A chart presented at a NASA smallsat town hall meeting during the 37th Annual Small Satellite Conference here Aug. 7 stated that CURIE would launch on an Ariane 6 no earlier than April 1, 2024.
Delays in the Ariane 6 have contributed to what Aschbacher has called a “launcher crisis.” Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket made its final launch July 5, while the Vega C rocket remains out of service after a launch failure in December 2022. Europe lost access to Russia’s Soyuz rocket, which launched from Kourou, after the invasion of Ukraine last year. That has temporarily left Europe without independent space access.
Those issues led ESA to procure Falcon 9 launches from SpaceX for its Euclid space telescope, which successfully launched July 1, and the Hera asteroid mission in 2024. ESA also plans to acquire a Falcon 9 for its EarthCARE Earth science mission in 2024. ESA and the European Commission are weighing the use of Falcon 9 to launch Galileo navigation satellites.