PARIS (Reuters) – European space officials said on Monday they will face critical timing decisions in the coming weeks on whether Europe’s main space launchers will return to flight after a series of postponements.
The inaugural launch of the new Ariane 6 launcher in Europe has been postponed until next year, while a test failure of the smaller Vega C rocket has hampered the chances of a return to service in 2023 for that rocket after it was grounded in December 2022.
Last year, Europe’s third traditional path into space, Russia’s Soyuz programme, was halted amid the collapse of East-West relations in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The development has left Europe scrambling to close the gap in launch capability as competition intensifies in the market for commercial launches, with the larger, upgraded Ariane 6 rocket designed to be more competitive against rivals led by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
The European Space Agency said, in a press conference, that it plans to schedule the launch of the first Ariane 6 rocket in early October after completing a series of engine tests.
The next test is scheduled for Tuesday after efforts to light the main section engine at the launch site in French Guiana on August 29 were postponed. A separate test of the complex upper stage was successfully conducted in Germany on Friday.
ESA Director General Joseph Aschbacher declined to commit to a full launch in the first half of next year, but told reporters that the results so far point to a “not too late” test launch in 2024, followed by the first commercial mission about 6 months later.
Ariane 6 is being developed at a cost of 4 billion euros to replace Ariane 5, which ended operations in July, leaving European countries with a void in independent access to space for the first time in more than four decades.
Italy’s Vega C rover was grounded in December 2022 after the failure of its second mission. Investigators blamed the launch failure on a faulty part of the engine and a new probe was launched in June after a failed ground test.
Aschbacher said the timing of Vega C’s return to operation will be determined after the committee reports later this month.
Meanwhile, the previous generation Vega rocket is scheduled to make its first launch since the retirement of its new, larger sister model on October 4, 2022.
Tim Heffer reports. Edited by Jason Neely and Alison Williams
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