First Ariane 6 launch of European rocket

This photo shows the launch of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Ariane 6 rocket from the launch pad at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, on July 9, 2024.

Jody Amiet | AFP | Getty Images

The powerful, European-built Ariane 6 rocket made its long-awaited launch on Tuesday, reestablishing the region as a launch market dominated by Elon Musk's SpaceX.

Ariane 6, over 60 metres high and powered by a Vulcain engine and two boosters, was launched at 3pm Dutch time from Kourou in French Guiana and subsequently successfully reached orbit around the Earth.

The rocket is a roughly $4.5 billion joint effort overseen by the European Space Agency, or ESA, and built by ArianeGroup, a joint venture between Airbus and Safran. Thirteen countries are contributing to the Ariane 6 program.

This photo shows the launch of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Ariane 6 rocket from the launch pad at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, on July 9, 2024.

Jody Amiet | AFP | Getty Images

It is the latest in a European rocket line that dates back to the 1970s and is the successor to the Ariane 5, which was launched 117 times before being retired last year. The Ariane 6 comes in two versions: the Ariane 62, with two solid rocket boosters that can carry up to 10,000 kilograms of payload to low Earth orbit (LEO), and the Ariane 64, a model with four solid rockets that can carry up to 21,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit.

On the launch market, the Ariane 6 falls into the class of 'heavy' rockets.

The debut flight of Ariane 6 is a demonstration mission for ESA and will carry a variety of small satellites and spacecraft. After launch, the flight will last almost three hours before completing the deployment of 11 spacecraft and will also include a major series of tests of the rocket's upper stage engine.

Delayed debut

The European Space Agency's (ESA) Ariane 6 rocket is seen ahead of its first launch at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, on July 9, 2024.

Jody Amiet | Afp | Getty Images

The maiden voyage of Ariane 6 has been delayed for years due to technical problems, the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

After the large-scale invasion of neighboring Russia all launches of European missions suspended on his Soyuz rockets. A smaller alternative European rocket, Vega-C, has been grounded since a failed launch in 2022 and is not expected to fly again until later this year.

Despite rising costs and long delays, European leaders continue to support the Ariane 6 program, stressing the importance of the continent having its own access to space, rather than depending on SpaceX.

However, Europe has been forced to turn to SpaceX on several occasions, as the company has a near-monopoly on the global launch market.

The European Space Agency's Ariane 6 rocket lifts off to the launch pad for launch at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, on July 9, 2024.

Jody Amiet | Afp | Getty Images

SpaceX’s reusable and relatively inexpensive Falcon 9 rockets offer an attractive alternative to spacecraft waiting for Ariane 6 to fly. High-profile ESA missions such as the EarthCARE spacecraft, the Euclid telescope and the Galileo satellites have already been launched on SpaceX rockets.

Last month, the European weather satellite operator reported EUMETSAT took the “exceptional” decision to move a planned satellite launch from Ariane 6 to the Falcon 9, a choice met with derision from other European officials.

“I am eager to understand the reasons that led Eumetsat to take such a decision,” wrote Philippe Baptiste, head of the French space agency CNES, in a after on social media.

“How far will we, Europeans, go in our naivety?” Baptiste asked.

Interestingly, most American companies that want to challenge SpaceX are focusing on reusable rocket technology, but Ariane 6, like its predecessor, is disposable. This means that each vehicle is unique and will be discarded after the mission.

It is not only Europe's desire for its own access to space that is driving Ariane 6. The rocket has one more important customer waiting for launch: AmazonThe US tech giant has ordered a whopping 97 rocket launches from five companies, almost a fifth of which were won by Arianespace to launch Project Kuiper internet satellites on Ariane 6.

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