The countdown begins for Ariane 6 to return one of its strategic pillars to Europe

With its launch campaign underway, Brussels is reluctantly turning to its American friend in order to mitigate its fragile autonomy of access to space 
Con el Ariane 5 (centro) ya fuera de producción, el director general de la ESA, el austriaco Josef Aschbacher, afronta el reto del despegue inaugural del Ariane 6 (izquierda) y el retorno al vuelo del más pequeño Vega - PHOTO/ESA-D. Dos Santos
With Ariane 5 (centre) now out of production, ESA Director-General Josef Aschbacher of Austria faces the challenge of the maiden liftoff of Ariane 6 (left) and the return to flight of the smaller Vega - PHOTO/ESA-D. Dos Santos
  1. US to Europe's rescue
  2. In the hands of Falcon 9, the main competitor to Ariane 6

Europe's strategic space launch services industry is on the way to seeing the light and emerging from the dark tunnel it has been in for almost a year.

El primer Ariane 6 ya está en su plataforma de lanzamiento en la base de Kourou, en la Guayana francesa, con las interconexiones entre el cohete y los servicios en tierra ya instaladas - PHOTO/ESA-CNES-ArianeGroup-Arianespace
The first Ariane 6 is already on its launch pad at the Kourou base in French Guiana, with the interconnections between the rocket and ground services already in place - PHOTO/ESA-CNES-ArianeGroup-Arianespace

The first launch campaign for the new non-recoverable Ariane 6 space transport vector has just begun in French Guiana, with the aim of its maiden flight to take place on an as yet unspecified date ‘between 15 June and 31 July’. This is what the European Space Agency (ESA) claims..

Under the watchful and concerned eye of Brussels, ESA is overseeing the final preparations for Ariane 6's liftoff, which is moving ahead at a fast pace and with trepidation to restore Europe's lost autonomy in accessing space, which both the European Union and ESA have boasted of over the past decades. 

De diseño disruptivo concebido para trasladar de Francia a Guayana las estructuras del Ariane 6, el Canopeé es un carguero de propulsión convencional y eólica, con cuatro velas verticales articuladas - PHOTO/ESA-CNES-ArianeGroup-Arianespace
A disruptive design conceived to move the Ariane 6 structures from France to French Guiana, the Canopeé is a conventional and wind-powered freighter with four articulated vertical sails - PHOTO/ESA-CNES-ArianeGroup-Arianespace

The first Ariane 6 is already on its launch pad at the Kourou space base in French Guiana after arriving by sea a few weeks ago. A statement dated 6 May from the rocket's industrial manager, the French company ArianeGroup, said that ‘all mechanical connections between the launcher's central core and its two main boosters’, the thrusters responsible for providing the power needed to lift it into space, ‘have now been completed’.

The latest joint status report dated 26 April issued by the European Space Agency (ESA), the French space agency (CNES) and ArianeGroup states that Ariane 6 has undergone a four-week ‘comprehensive final check of both the rocket and its launch system’ and that the results ‘will be announced in early May’, which has not yet happened. 

Un equipo conjunto de la ESA, el CNES, ArianeGroup y Arianespace posiciona el núcleo central del Ariane 6. Una vez completado, su altura será superior a los 60 metros - PHOTO/ESA-CNES-ArianeGroup-Arianespace
A joint team from ESA, CNES, ArianeGroup and Arianespace positions the central core of Ariane 6. Once completed, its height will be more than 60 metres - PHOTO/ESA-CNES-ArianeGroup-Arianespace

US to Europe's rescue

But while the launch campaign is still underway off the coast of South America, more than 7,000 kilometres from Paris, Europe has had to knock on the door of its American friend to come to its rescue, as it did in the First and Second World Wars.

The aid that Washington has just provided, and which will last at least until 2024, was not for the sake of a serious armed conflict in which the democracies of the Old Continent would be at risk. That is what the US-led NATO is already there for, as the war in Ukraine makes clear. 

Unlike the decisive US military intervention in the Great War in Europe from April 1917 onwards and its direct entry into the Second World War in December 1941, the current US contribution is not aimed at helping European democracies to survive. 

El portugués Rodrigo da Costa (segundo por la izquierda) es el director de la EUSPA, la Agencia de la Unión Europea para el Programa Espacial (EUSPA), responsable de la gestión de la constelación de navegación Galileo - PHOTO/EUSPA
Portugal's Rodrigo da Costa (second from left) is the head of EUSPA, the European Union Space Programme Agency (EUSPA), which is responsible for managing the Galileo navigation constellation - PHOTO/EUSPA

The reason for the assistance provided by the White House, the US Space Force, NASA and the US space industry is in response to the request made by Brussels through its European Union Space Programme Agency (EUSPA) and also the European Space Agency (ESA).

The reason is to remedy as a matter of urgency the collapse of one of the pillars of European strategic autonomy, the consequence of which to this day remains the complete lack of orbital vectors giving European authorities the possibility of independent access to outer space. This has an economic and employment impact on the European space industry. 

Un Falcón 9 de Elon Musk posicionó en órbita por vez primera una pareja de satélites Galileo de la Unión Europea. Volverá a hacerlo en el segundo semestre del año - PHOTO/ESA-P. Carril
An Elon Musk Falcon 9 placed a pair of European Union Galileo satellites into orbit for the first time. It will do so again in the second half of the year - PHOTO/ESA-P. Carril

In the hands of Falcon 9, the main competitor to Ariane 6

About a year ago, Europe had more than enough sovereign capacity to place civil and military observation, communications and navigation satellites, as well as scientific probes of all kinds, into orbit. From a comfortable situation in previous decades, in just a few months we have gone from not having the capacity to send anything at all into orbit. 

As if it were a perfect storm, the latest failures of the Italian Vega and Vega C launchers - forcing them to remain on the ground until their deficiencies are resolved - were joined by the shutdown of the production lines of the Ariane 5 launcher. The shutdown occurred long before the European heavy rocket was due to make its last liftoff from French Guiana in July 2023. In Spain, it has affected Airbus Space Systems and Airbus CRISA, which provide important structures and electronic equipment for both European rockets. 

In anticipation of Ariane 6's maiden flight in midsummer at the earliest, the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton of France, and the ESA Director General, Josef Aschbacher of Austria, have had no choice but to reluctantly turn to the American recoverable launcher Falcon 9 from Elon Musk's SpaceX, the rocket against which Ariane 6 aims to compete. 

El EarthCARE es un satélite diseñado para ofrecer datos precisos que permitan conocer cómo las nubes y los aerosoles influyen en el clima de la Tierra - PHOTO/ESA-AOES Medialab
Medialab - EarthCARE is a satellite designed to provide accurate data on how clouds and aerosols influence the Earth's climate - PHOTO/ESA-AOES Medialab

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of Germany, EUSPA Executive Director Rodrigo da Costa of Portugal and Josef Aschbacher had to pay around 180 million euros, a price premium of more than 30 per cent. As a result, Brussels was able to get priority for two launches of Galileo satellites, the European equivalent of the American GPS constellation. The first launch took place on 28 April and the two satellites complete the 30 Galileo satellites already in orbit.    

If the agreement between ESA and SpaceX goes ahead as planned, another Falcon 9 will launch the European EarthCARE science satellite from Vandenberg Space Base on the California coast before the end of May. Another ESA mission by Falcon 9 will be HERA, bound for the Didymos binary asteroid system, which SpaceX has scheduled for October. Another Falcon 9 with two new Galileo satellites is scheduled to take off later this year. And after that, we'll see what happens. 

These are the negative consequences of a programme such as Ariane 6, which began in 2014, which when it takes off will be four years behind schedule, which has required an investment that exceeds the 3.5 billion euros initially stipulated, and which has yet to prove that it is capable of standing up to its biggest competitor. This is precisely the American Falcon 9, which has become the world champion in terms of price and reliability, and which the Ariane 6 is very difficult, if not impossible, to unseat or even match.