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How the European Space Agency is assembling its next big rocket

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With a central rocket core now on the assembly line at its spaceport, the European Space Agency is making progress on the development of its Ariane 6 heavy-lift rocket, the intended successor to the current Ariane 5 rocket that successfully launched the James Webb Space Telescope in December.

Designed as a less costly, more flexible heavy-lift vehicle than the Ariane 5, development of the Ariane 6 began in 2014. Like its predecessor, the new rocket will launch both scientific and commercial payloads from the European Space Port in Kourou, French Guiana, in South America, albeit from an all-new launchpad. If all goes well, Ariane 6 rockets will begin flying ESA missions such as the HERA spacecraft in 2024, while competing with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rockets to launch commercial payloads beginning in 2023.

What’s the status of Ariane 6 now?

On Friday, ESA announced the installation of the Ariane 6 lower and upper stages on the assembly line of a new launch vehicle assembly building in French Guiana. The two sections comprising the core of the rocket arrived by boat on January 17.

ESA ground crew will now run the Ariane 6 rocket through the same steps of assembly and testing that will eventually take place leading up to an actual rocket launch, and will also hot-fire the rocket at the launch pad without actually lifting off.

The first actual test flight of the Ariane 6 is expected sometime in late 2022.

The under-construction Ariane 6 rocket will provide a powerful vehicle for ESA launches. ESA

What is the design of the Ariane 6 rocket?

Ariane 6 will be a two-stage, heavy-lift rocket, rising almost 200 feet off the launch pad.

A Vulcain 2.1 engine, an improved version of the engine powering the Ariane 5, will drive the lower stage, while the new Vinci engine powers the upper stage. Both engines use liquid hydrogen fuel and liquid oxygen oxidizer.

The lower stage also accepts two or four solid rocket boosters to provide additional launch at lift-off, the two-booster configuration known as the A62 variant, and the four-booster configuration the A64 variant of the rocket.

ESA illustration of the two Ariane 6 launch configuration variants. ESA

All told, the Ariane 6 will provide more than 1 million pounds of lift at lift-off and can deliver between 11 and nearly 24 tons to low-Earth orbit, depending on the variant used.

What will the Ariane 6 be capable of?

Between the two variants, rocketing fairings of different sizes, and the flexibility of the Vinci engine — many rocket engines can only be restarted on the ground — Ariane 6 will be able to deliver payloads everywhere from Low-Earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit.

It will also serve well in Earth escape missions, just as its predecessor the Ariane 5 did when launching the Webb telescope out to Lagrangian Point 2, 1 million miles from Earth in deep space.

The James Webb Space Telescope launches aboard an Ariane 5 rocket on December 25, 2021. JODY AMIET/AFP/Getty Images

What missions might Ariane 6 launch?

With the first test flight of the Ariane 6 still uncertain, it’s not clear which payloads the new rocket will loft first and when.

ESA plans to launch a Galileo Navigation satellite sometime in 2023 using the Ariane 6, and its HERA spacecraft, which will examine the results of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), sometime in 2024.



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