WASHINGTON — A key Ariane 6 supplier expects the rocket to make its first launch within a year, but ruled out any chance the vehicle could fly before the end of 2023.

In a May 10 earnings call, executives with German aerospace company OHB predicted that the rocket will make its long-delayed debut within the first several months of 2024, the strongest indication yet by those involved with the rocket’s development that it will not be ready for launch before the end of this year.

“It’s not yet launched, but we hope that it will launch in the early part of next year,” said Marco Fuchs, chief executive of OHB, of Ariane 6 during a presentation about the company’s first quarter financial results. A subsidiary of OHB, MT Aerospace, produces tanks and structures for the rocket.

Later in the call, he estimated the rocket was no more than a year away from that inaugural flight. “I am getting more and more confident we will see the first launch of Ariane 6 early next year,” he said. “I think we are within a year of the first launch and that is psychologically very important.”

Fuchs didn’t offer a more precise date of the launch, stating that “is not for us to publish” at this time. “I’m just more and more confident that it will be in the early part of next year, so within a year I’m pretty sure that we will do it.”

His comments are the strongest statement yet that an Ariane 6 launch in 2023 was no longer feasible. The European Space Agency said in October 2022 it was projecting a first launch of the rocket, once expected in 2020, in the fourth quarter of 2023. However, neither ESA nor prime contractor ArianeGroup have provided recent updates on that schedule or confirmed that they were still targeting a launch before the end of the year, amid rampant speculation that the launch was slipping into 2024.

In an April 17 interview during the 38th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher declined to give an updated schedule for the first Ariane 6 launch, citing ongoing test activities in several areas, such as a hotfire test expected in early July.

Once that hotfire test is complete, he said, the Ariane 6 partners should know enough “that we can then make a much better prediction of the maiden flight date.”

IRIS² role

OHB is part of the consortium that announced May 2 it is bidding on the European Union’s Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite, or IRIS², multi-orbit satellite constellation. That consortium includes many major European satellite operators and manufacturers.

Lutz Bertling, chief strategy and development officer of OHB, said in the earnings call that he was aware informally of proposals only by that consortium and a few other companies bidding on their own. “We can hardly imagine that they would be eligible,” he said of those other bidders, with the European Commission expected to announce in mid-May who is eligible to proceed.

The May 2 announcement did not disclose the roles of the individual companies in the “open consortium.” Bertling said OHB had preliminary agreements with other members of the consortium on roles and responsibilities, but would not disclose them until after the European Commission releases the final invitation to tender. That was in part, he said, because that final invitation could change some of those details.

“We are very satisfied. We reached what we wanted to reach,” he said. “I think the positioning that we have is quite a good one, and if it all goes through like it is, it will be shaping for OHB’s future, in a positive sense.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...