Long-awaited European rocket experiences ‘anomaly’ before reentry to Earth

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The European Space Agency’s member countries have endured a months-long space access predicament while waiting to add a functioning launch vehicle to their toolbox.

But a new rocket, dubbed Ariane 6, just launched on its maiden mission after years of delays and hang-ups in the development process.

The flight kicked off at Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, which lies along South America’s northern tip, at 3 p.m. ET. And it appeared to go through most of its milestones without a hitch, propelling itself through orbit. Cheers rang out in the control room as the Ariane 6 strolled through milestones, including deploying its first satellites.

However, around 2 hours and 50 minutes into the flight, before the Ariane 6 upper rocket booster dove back toward Earth, intentionally plunging out of orbit, officials announced that an “anomaly” — aerospace parlance for something gone awry — occurred. The root cause of the issue was not immediately clear.

An engine’s reignition stopped prematurely. That prevented the rocket from finishing its mission as expected.

Though Tuesday’s mission didn’t go entirely as planned, the space agency hopes the Ariane 6 rocket system will go on to make the space agency more self-reliant and even challenge SpaceX’s dominance in the global market for launching satellites.

SpaceX transformed the commercial launch market

France-based launch service provider Arianespace is the operator of Ariane 6. The aerospace firm was founded in 1980 and is billed as the “the world’s first commercial space transportation company.” Arianespace is part of ArianeGroup, a joint venture between Airbus and Safran that developed and built the powerful rocket.

But the European launch industry has struggled in recent years. The Ariane 6’s predecessor, Ariane 5, flew its final voyage in July 2023, ending the rocket’s 27-year run. Europe’s Vega-C rocket, designed for vaulting small satellites to orbit, has also been grounded since a December 2022 failure.

Spectators watch the takeoff of the Ariane 6 rocket from its launchpad at the Guiana Space Center on Tuesday. - Jody Amiet/AFP/Getty Images
Spectators watch the takeoff of the Ariane 6 rocket from its launchpad at the Guiana Space Center on Tuesday. - Jody Amiet/AFP/Getty Images

The commercial launch market, for the record, is far different than it was even two decades ago — mostly due to Elon Musk’s California-based company SpaceX and its relatively affordable Falcon rockets.

Now, ESA is aiming to bounce back, and — even if it’s unable to compete directly with SpaceX on price — capture more of the European market.

Already, however, there are setbacks.

Josef Aschbacher, the ESA’s director general, has openly criticized The European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, or EUMETSAT, for choosing to launch a weather satellite on a SpaceX-built Falcon 9 rocket rather than on Ariane 6.

“It’s difficult to understand,” Aschbacher said in a social media post that appeared on X, formerly known as Twitter. “The end of the launcher is within reach. Now is the time for Europe to support autonomous access to space, which is on the horizon.”

Still, Ariane 6 has already inked some high-profile contracts, including plans to launch some of Amazon’s new constellation of internet-beaming satellites.

Officials from Arianespace, Ariane Group and ESA all celebrated Tuesday’s launch, declaring that Europe was officially back in space.

What to expect from Ariane 6

Similar to the Ariane 5 rocket, the latest iteration of this launch system hopes to offer the capability of hauling fairly large satellites to orbit at a reasonable price.

However, it’s not yet clear how much the rocket will ultimately cost per launch. The vehicle cost about 4 billion euros ($432.5 billion USD) to develop, and officials have indicated they hope the per-launch cost will be well under $100 million. In comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has a base price of $67 million and can carry slightly more tonnage into low-Earth orbit.

The Ariane 6 rocket is seen prior to its maiden launch at the Guiana Space Center on Tuesday. - Jody Amiet/AFP/Getty Images
The Ariane 6 rocket is seen prior to its maiden launch at the Guiana Space Center on Tuesday. - Jody Amiet/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the rocket took off on its inaugural test flight hauling small satellites, experiments and technology demonstrations.

The mission plan for the rocket was to reignite the engine that powers the upper part of the rocket twice, practicing its ability to make multiple stops in orbit. The engine relit just once before the anomaly, successfully deploying some of its payloads.

The rocket’s upper stage was then expected to intentionally dive back toward Earth to and sink to a watery grave in the ocean near Point Nemo — a spot in the Pacific Ocean farther from land than any place on Earth. At the same time, two experimental capsules were supposed be jettisoned and attempt to survive the trip home. The mission ended before those events occurred.

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