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Another new big rocket makes debut with launch of Ariane 6

Richard Tribou, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in Science & Technology News

2024 is lining up to be the year of rocket debuts as Arianespace performed the first launch of its heavy-lift Ariane 6 from French Guiana on Tuesday.

The 207-foot-tall, multistage rocket is the replacement for the retired Ariane 5, which last flew in July 2023 after a 27-year run as the go-to rocket for the European Space Agency. Liftoff from the Guiana Space Centre in Korou took place at 3 p.m. EDT.

Among new rockets to fly in 2024, it joins United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur that debuted in January from Cape Canaveral. It could be be followed by the first launch of Blue Origin’s New Glenn later this year, also from Cape Canaveral. And technically, since SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy didn’t achieve orbit during its two 2023 launch attempts, Elon Musk’s powerhouse rocket could call 2024 a banner year as well after its two orbital test flights so far this year.

“Good luck my friend,” ULA President and Tory Bruno posted on X tagging Arianespace’s account.

For Arianespace, just like ULA and Blue Origin, though, it has taken longer than originally planned to get to the launch pad. Originally announced in 2014, Ariane 6 had an initial target debut of 2020 before a series of delays including COVID.

Amazon is eagerly awaiting all three rockets to get up to speed as it awarded a massive launch contract back in 2022 to get the majority of 3,236 internet satellites that are part of the Project Kuiper constellation into space.

That contract called for up to 83 launches among the three big rockets over five years, but half of them have to be in place by July 2026 as part of Amazon’s license with the Federal Communications Commission.

Ariane 6 is slated to fly 18 of the missions while ULA netted the most with 38. Blue Origin received a contract for an initial 12 but the option to add 15 more. Delays in the rockets forced Amazon to also secure some rides on SpaceX to help ensure timely delivery. Project Kuiper will compete directly with SpaceX’s Starlink.

 

At the time of the contract announcement in May 2022, Ariane 6 was lined up for its first launch just months later, but just like New Glenn and Vulcan Centaur, delays tacked on another two years before any debut.

For this first launch, the rocket has multiple payloads and science experiments including a small space weather satellite, known as a CubeSat, called CURIE (CubeSat Radio Interferometry Experiment) provided by NASA’s Launch Services Program based out of Kennedy Space Center.

“NASA and ESA share a collaborative and mutually beneficial working relationship and are in constant communication about potential spacecraft and launch opportunities between the two agencies,” said Norman Phelps, mission manager with NASA’s Launch Services Program. “ESA notified NASA it could provide a slot on the Ariane 6 if there was a CubeSat compatible with the orbital parameters and launch window, and after a thorough search, CURIE was selected.”

The rideshare payload headed to an orbit about 360 miles above Earth comes from a team based at the University of California, Berkeley. It’s actually three CubeSats bolted together that will separate into two parts after deployment. They will provide two vantage points to measure radio waves from the sun and other sources, according to a NASA press release.

That includes radio burst emissions from solar flares and coronal mass ejections. The mission is funded by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

“This is a big moment for Europe, as the rocket will ensure our guaranteed, autonomous access to space – and all of the science, Earth observation, technology development and commercial possibilities that it entails,” reads a preview on the ESA website. “With many features brand new to Ariane 6, we’ll be able to carry more and take it further, while sustainably disposing of the launcher’s upper stage to prevent it becoming space debris.”

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