After a period of dependence on foreign launch providers, Europe finally achieved what it had set out to, several years in the making. The ESA successfully launched its heavy-lifted Ariane 6 rocket, making it possible for the space agency to launch larger payloads on its own, without having to depend on the likes of SpaceX and others. However, even though the launch was successful, the rocket developed anomalies in its final destructive re-entry stages, making it a paritally successful launch. Other concerns around the cost per launch of Ariane 6 and its overall financial viability still remain unanswered, but the launch has nevertheless been hailed as momentous by most of European leadership.

“This is our space history,” French President Emmanuel Macron posted on X. “This is our strategic autonomy. It is a source of French and European pride. The first launch of Ariane 6 is a success!”

”Today, Ariane is back!” said Martin Sion, CEO of ArianeGroup, prime contractor for the Ariane 6 rocket. “And today, with this new launcher, Europe is restoring its autonomous access to space.”

This launch marks the first flight of a vehicle that is poised to restore Europe’s independent access to space. The Ariane 6’s debut comes after years of delays, during which Europe has had to rely heavily on commercial launch providers like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The European Space Agency has spent a staggering $4 billion and more, to get the Ariane 6 rocket to this point, with the goal of replacing the Ariane 5 with a cheaper, more capable launcher. The latter part of the assertion still remains debatable.

The Ariane 5 rocket, once a dominant player in global space launches, was retired last year after a distinguished service history spanning 27 years and 117 successful missions, including the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. However, its retirement left a significant gap in Europe’s launch capabilities. The development of Ariane 6 has been fraught with delays, exacerbated by the failure of the smaller European rocket, Vega C. These setbacks left Europe without a reliable home-grown option for space launches, forcing reliance on external providers, predominantly SpaceX.

The European Space Agency (ESA) and European authorities have long been concerned about this dependency on non-European launch providers. Lucia Linares, head of space transportation strategy at ESA, revealed that the Ariane 6 project involved 13 ESA member states and 600 European companies. While ESA oversaw the rocket’s design, the construction was undertaken by ArianeGroup, and CNES, France’s space agency, managed the launch base and complex development.

Ariane 6 is designed to be more economical and flexible than its predecessors, capable of supporting a wide range of missions from commercial satellites to scientific programs. Standing tall at over 60 meters, it boasts a weight of nearly 900 tonnes when fully loaded – comparable to the combined weight of one and a half Airbus A380 passenger jets. The Ariane 6’s inaugural flight will carry a variety of payloads from both commercial companies and government agencies. Notably, these includes a NASA radiowave-measurement satellite. The Ariane 6 is a three-stage behemoth, designed for a precise and efficient launch sequence. The first stage comprises two detachable solid boosters that provide the initial thrust, powered by a Vulcain 2.1 engine. The upper stage houses the payload and is propelled by a reignitable Vinci engine. Finally, the fairing safeguards the delicate satellites during their ascent through the atmosphere.

The initial thrust is provided by the two boosters and the Vulcain 2.1 engine. Once the boosters have expended their fuel and are no longer needed, they will detach from the core structure, falling away and making a controlled descent. As the rocket breaches Earth’s atmosphere, the fairing will be discarded, revealing the payload nestled within the upper stage. Approximately eight minutes into the flight, the entire first stage will separate, leaving the upper stage to take over. The Vinci engine will ignite, propelling the rocket into an elliptical orbit 700 kilometers above Earth. The subsequent phase involves a reignition of the Vinci engine, maneuvering the Ariane 6 into a circular orbit at an altitude of 580 kilometers from Earth’s surface. Following this crucial orbital insertion, the launcher will deploy its precious cargo – eight satellites – and activate four onboard experiments.

The final act involves another reignition of the Vinci engine, this time initiating a controlled deorbiting process. The Ariane 6 will re-enter the atmosphere over the NEMO point, a designated area in the South Pacific Ocean. Two re-entry capsules onboard, designed to test new technologies for future missions, will separate from the upper stage for a controlled descent. If the July 9 launch proceeds as planned, the Ariane 6 is scheduled to launch a French defense satellite in December and ramp up to six more missions in 2025.