WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency said Oct. 19 it has rescheduled a long-duration static-fire test of the Ariane 6 rocket for late November, after a major meeting of European government officials where support for the rocket will be on the agenda.
In an update, ESA said engineers are continuing work to fix a problem with the hydraulics in the thrust vector control system of the core stage of the rocket. That problem caused ESA and its partners to delay the hot-fire test, where the core stage’s Vulcain 2.1 engine is fired for 470 seconds, from early October.
The agency said that the long-duration test is now scheduled for November. It will be preceded by a full-scale launch countdown test in October, lasting 36 hours, that will conclude with a brief firing of the core stage engine. That rehearsal test had previously been planned for after the long-duration test.
The ESA statement did not give specific dates for the two tests. However, at a press briefing after a meeting of the ESA Council, Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA, said the countdown rehearsal was scheduled for Oct. 23 and the long-duration engine test for Nov. 23.
He said that ESA still expected to set a period for the inaugural launch of the Ariane 6 after that long-duration test. “It is planned to be in 2024,” he said of the first flight, “but when exactly is too early to say.”
Despite this latest testing delay, Aschbacher argued that the Ariane 6 team was making good progress, citing the successful short-duration hot-fire test Sept. 5 and a separate test of the upper stage’s Vinci engine Sept. 1. “Both have been very successful,” he said. “We are confident that we are on a good path towards the maiden flight, of course with many steps still to be undertaken.”
The delay, though, means ESA won’t have an estimated date for the Ariane 6’s debut when it convenes a second European Space Summit meeting Nov. 6-7 in Seville, Spain. That event will host separate meetings of the ESA Council and European Union’s Competitiveness Council, as well as a joint meeting of the two bodies.
Access to space is one of the key topics ESA plans to discuss at the summit, and at the press briefing Aschbacher said the agency is finalizing a package of initiatives for which it will seek endorsements by participating countries at the meeting. He declined to go to into details about the package because the final details are still being worked out but that ESA members had achieved consensus on the “big picture” of the proposal.
For access to space, he said the package has four main elements, one of which is “stabilized access to space” through support for the Ariane 6 and Vega C rockets. The other elements include a “challenge” for small launch vehicles being commercially developed, construction of launch pads at the French Guiana spaceport and whether Arianespace will continue to market and operate Vega, which is built by Avio.
The summit, he noted, will provide a political endorsement of those plans, but not funding. Those funding commitments will come at ESA’s next ministerial meeting in late 2025.
Vega launch investigation
ESA officials also discussed at the briefing an issue with the most recent Vega launch Oct. 8, the first for the Vega family of vehicles since a Vega C launch failure in December 2022. The rocket carried two primary payloads and 10 cubesats.
Officials confirmed that two of the 10 cubesats did not deploy from their payload adapters on the rocket’s upper stage. ESA did not identify them in the release, but other industry sources said they were ESTCUBE-2, from Estonia’s University of Tartu, and ANSER-LEADER, one of three cubesats from Spain’s National Institute for Aerospace Technology. Both were supported by an EU program for in-orbit testing of new space technologies.
“These satellites were probably not deployed,” said Toni Tolker-Nielsen, ESA’s director of space transportation. While deployment commands were sent, there was no telemetry confirming that the satellites were deployed and the two satellites were not tracked by the U.S. Space Force. “We assume they stayed on the upper stage of the launcher and reentered together with the upper stage.”
ESA is participating in an investigation led by Arianespace and Avio to study the failed deployment. It will not affect the next Vega flight planned for next spring, he said, because it will not use the same cubesat payload adapter as the most recent flight.