Europe’s top space official said Monday that ensuring the first launch of the Ariane 6 rocket takes place in 2022 is a very high priority.
“This for me is a top, top priority,” said Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency, at the Paris Air Forum. “Ariane 6 is our most important launcher to come. We have to put all the energy and all the emphasis into making the maiden flight as soon as possible.
Together with the leaders of the French space agency, CNES, and the Ariane 6’s prime contractor, Ariane Group, Aschbacher said he had put “a small group” together to make an independent assessment of the schedule for the final development phase of the Ariane 6 rocket. The goal of this task force will be to ensure that Europe does everything it needs to do launch on time.
“This is a huge challenge that we need to work together on,” Aschbacher said. “Because don’t forget we are in this together.”
In referring to an “on time” launch, Aschbacher said he meant next year, before the European Space Agency’s Ministerial Council meeting that is typically held in October or November. This is a high-level meeting where representatives from each member nation of the space agency gather to set policy. The European Space Agency’s budget is provided, in varying amounts, by member nations.
“This is a must,” Aschbacher said of launching before the 2022 meeting, “because we need good news, and good success, for our politicians to see that Europe performs, that Europe delivers, and therefore it is worth investing in space in the ministerial conference.”
The Ariane 6 rocket is a heavy-lift vehicle being developed to replace the venerable European Ariane 5 rocket. Although it is not reusable, European officials intend for Ariane 6 to have a lower launch cost than its predecessor and thus to be more competitive with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Some critics in Europe, however, have said the new rocket does not go far enough to challenge the reusable Falcon 9, which has put downward pressure on launch costs around the world.
Ariane Group and its contracting partners have been formally designing and building the Ariane 6 rocket since 2014, when the Ministerial Council agreed upon its development. Originally, this rocket was supposed to launch in 2020. Last November, however, European officials said they were now targeting the period of April through June 2022 for the first Ariane 6 flight. They cited both technical issues and the global COVID-19 pandemic that affected activities at development facilities in Europe and the rocket’s launch site in French Guiana.
The comments from Aschbacher, however, suggest that Ariane 6 is no longer on target to launch during the first half of 2022. Rather, it sounds like it will be a struggle to make a launch date before the end of next year.