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Europe’s Ariane 6 Rocket Reaches Orbit But Suffers Glitch

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(Bloomberg) -- Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket launched to orbit during its long-awaited debut on Tuesday, but suffered a problem in space that cut short the mission just before a key test milestone.

The rocket is the centerpiece of Europe’s space ambitions and key to proving that an old-fashioned, one-and-done launcher still has a place in an industry increasingly dominated by reusable vehicles.

Ariane 6, built by the Airbus SE-Safran SA joint venture ArianeGroup and operated by its Arianespace subsidiary, thundered off a launchpad in French Guiana on the northern coast of South America on Tuesday at 3 p.m. New York time.

It reached orbit a few minutes later, to applause and obvious relief from mission control personnel, and about an hour into the flight deployed a number of satellites as planned. “It’s a historic day for Europe,” European Space Agency Director General Josef Aschbacher said during a briefing midway through the mission. 

But about two-and-a-half-hours into the flight, ESA announced that the upper portion of the rocket had suffered an unspecified problem that led to its auxillary power unit shutting off — preventing its ability to complete a key test. 

European launch services provider Arianespace had planned to deploy two uncrewed space capsules from the vehicle and put them on a path to try to survive a fiery return through Earth’s atmosphere. 

European officials told reporters that they would analyze data to determine what caused the problem but confirmed that the capsules would not be deployed and that the upper portion of the rocket didn’t take itself out of orbit as planned. 

Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel said a second Ariane 6 spaceflight would take place in December.

“Ariane 6 demonstrated a successful liftoff, launch to orbit and deployment of satellites powering Europe into space,” ESA said in a social media post. “The tech-demo phase of Ariane 6 is still in progress but has shown an unexpected result which will affect the end of the mission.”

While it’s the centerpiece of European space ambitions, the Ariane 6 doesn’t have the reusable rocket technology that has fueled SpaceX’s rise to near-monopolistic dominance. Still, officials say they’re winning business from satellite operators like Inc. that face a shortage of non-SpaceX launches.

Arianespace has six flights planned in 2025 and a goal of building to 9-12 launches a year.

“We have three years of firm orders,” Lucia Linares, ESA’s head of strategy and institutional launches, told reporters last month. 

Arianespace last year went to orbit only a handful of times while losing business to Elon Musk’s rockets, which can be less expensive because they reuse the first-stage boosters that power them to space. 

The Ariane 6 is part of a broader push by long-established defense contractors that once dominated the rocket business.

Before SpaceX’s rise, companies like ArianeGroup, Boeing Co. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. were the major producers. SpaceX, founded in 2002, upended the rocket industry by pioneering reusable boosters and building many parts in-house. The company first reused a Falcon 9 booster in 2017, helping cut costs and the time between missions. 

The innovations caught the old guard flatfooted. Musk’s company had almost 100 missions last year, according to SpaceX. Older-generation US, European and Japanese rocket makers had a combined total of about 10, as many struggled to develop rockets that could compete with the Falcons.

The new rockets, delayed by problems making engines and other parts, are finally ready. However, they aren’t reusable and may not be advanced enough to put a scare into SpaceX, which intends for its giant Starship, the new rocket that had its fourth test flight on June 6, to be “fully reusable.”

“The cracks are starting to show” for the establishment firms, said Rebecca Allen, co-director of the Space Technology and Industry Institute at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. “They’re at a critical time to prove that they still have their worth.” 

While the upstarts look to have the upper hand, it’s still too early to count out the traditional rocket makers, she said. Indeed, the year got off to a good start for the older rivals.

The Vulcan, from Boeing-Lockheed Martin Corp. joint venture United Launch Alliance, took off for the first time in early January. At the time, a confident ULA planned seven flights for it this year. 

The Japanese space agency, JAXA, in February launched the first H3 from Mitsubishi Heavy, about a year after an earlier attempt ended in failure. JAXA launched again on July 1.

A new version of the European smaller rocket, the Vega C, hasn’t flown since a December 2022 failure but is expected to launch by the end of the year, according to Avio SpA. The Italian manufacturer plans a mission of an older version of the Vega in September.

Japan’s smaller Epsilon S rocket is still grounded, following an explosion in July last year.

ULA is trying to launch its second Vulcan certification flight in September and increase its launch frequency while facing pressure and financial penalties from the Pentagon. 

ULA is working on plans to reuse Vulcan engines, Bruno said in a statement on Jan. 8. While Mitsubishi Heavy also wants to have a reusable vehicle, “we’re not at the stage of developing anything concrete right now,” CEO Seiji Izumisawa told Bloomberg Television on June 21.

MaiaSpace, an ArianeGroup-backed company developing a reusable small rocket, has set a target of 2026. ArianeGroup hasn’t revealed plans for a bigger reusable rocket but ESA’s Linares said at the press conference in June the agency “will continue improving and of course we are also in Europe working on reusability.”

Younger companies are working much faster. Rocket Lab USA Inc. this year has had eight launches of its Electron, a small rocket which has a first stage that can parachute back to Earth and be recycled. The Neutron, slotted to debut next year, will be able to recycle its first stage and payload fairing (the cone at the rocket’s tip).

“Reusability is an element that you must have” to compete commercially, said Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck in an interview. Reusable rockets and frequent launches “were once aspirational but are now minimal requirements.”

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Although the old guard isn’t moving as quickly, they may still benefit from pent-up demand from customers that want to build or expand their satellite networks. Such companies have limited options: They can’t use Russian rockets because of the war in Ukraine and US restrictions keep Chinese rockets off-limits, too.

ULA has commitments for more than 70 Vulcan launches, according to the company, including 38 for Amazon’s internet-from-space Project Kuiper. Amazon in 2022 booked 18 launches on the Ariane 6.

Avio, which makes boosters for the Ariane 6, is preparing to ramp up production for about 30 launches of the new rocket in the coming years, CEO Giulio Ranzo told analysts in May. 

The new European, US and Japanese rockets should also be able to count on government customers that don’t want to have sensitive assets launched from other countries and are less concerned about price than private-sector companies.  

Mitsubishi Heavy’s H3 isn’t intended to be commercially competitive, said Kazuto Suzuki, professor at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Public Policy, since the government cares more about having a local option and keeping sensitive technology away from foreigners.

“You don’t want to disclose the information about your satellite outside of the Japanese security community,” he said. 

The Ariane 6 will receive at least four missions from public institutions annually, according to an agreement signed by Germany, France and Italy last November. 

With sufficient demand from both commercial and government customers, the space industry’s old guard will have a role, said Hermann Ludwig Moeller, director of the European Space Policy Institute, a Vienna think tank supported by ESA and national space agencies.

The situation is somewhat similar to the auto industry’s transition from fossil-fuel-burning cars to electric vehicles, he said, with both types now on the roads.

“Diesel cars didn’t disappear from the market even as we have more EVs,” said Moeller. “There is going to be a period — longer than one would think — of having different ways of getting things to orbit.”

That should give Europeans time to decide whether there’s enough demand to make the leap to reusability, said Philippe Baptiste, CEO of the French space agency Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales. 

“It makes no sense to make a reusable launcher if you don’t have many, many launches to perform,” he said in an interview. “It really heavily depends on the future market.”

--With assistance from Loren Grush.

(Updates with details from European officials.)

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