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Ariane 6: How to build a space rocket step-by-step

Published June 28, 2024last updated July 8, 2024

Ariane 6 is set to launch on July 9. Many have complained that it took far longer for Europe to develop its new rocket than expected. DW explains why it took 10 years.

Ariane 6 upper stage in development in Germany, 2021
ESA's flagship heavy-lift rocket, Ariane 6, was develop and tested around EuropeImage: Frank T. Koch/ArianeGroup/dpa/picture alliance

A week may be a long time in politics — for some, a day is quite enough — but in rocket science, not even a single year would get you past the first post.

It took Ariane 6, Europe's flagship heavy-lift rocket, two full years just to get a green light to be developed. And it took another eight years being built before its inaugural flight, which is scheduled for July 9, 2024 from French Guiana.

Building a whole new rocket system takes more than just creating a new rocket that shoots satellites into space.

A rocket system not only includes the rocket, often in various constellations, but also its engines, the fuel — which in Ariane 6's case is a new concoction of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen — a dedicated launchpad and a manufacturing network to create it all.

Throw a global pandemic into the mix and 10 years is nothing. Here's how Ariane 6's decade in development evolved.

Ariane 6 timeline: 2014-2016

It all started in 2014, with a proposal from European industry: They said they wanted to completely change the way rockets were designed, developed, produced and launched.

The plan was, and still is, for Ariane 6 to be the main workhorse for Europe's space industry, launching European satellites into space on European-built rockets.

The European Space Agency (ESA) took the proposal to its 22 member states. Each had to sign off on the idea.

But the engineers were already hard at work designing the system.

"You need to have your concepts ready. You lay out your production system, how you want to manufacture and assemble your rocket," said ESA's Tina Büchner da Costa, an Ariane 6 launch system architect based at Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

Launchpad of the Ariane 5 rocket
The Ariane 6 rocket will launch from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, like the previous version, Ariane 5 (seen here in 2019)Image: Patrick Aventurier/abaca/picture alliance

"We had to demonstrate that we could double the launch rate [compared to the rocket's predecessor, Ariane 5], and at the same time reduce the cost," said Büchner da Costa.

In 2015, the first contracts were drawn up: The ArianeGroup, an aerospace company based in France, would produce the rocket, and the French space agency, CNES, got the launchpad. 

And in 2016, they got the green light.

Ariane 6 timeline: 2017-2019

In 2017, the ArianeGroup began developing its manufacturing chain and producing the first elements of what's called a Flight Model 1 (FM1) version of the rocket.

During 2018 and 2019, four engines were tested and qualified. First, the Vulcain 2.1 engine, which powers the lower stage of the rocket. Then, the Vinci engine in the upper stage of the rocket — the Vinci engine can reignite in space, allowing Ariane 6 to release satellites at different locations on a single mission.

There was also a solid booster P120 engine, and, finally, a new, auxiliary propulsion unit (APU) — all had to be built, tested and verified, step by step.

"On every engine, you have several valves and other components that have to be tested at their own level before you can integrate them into an engine," said Büchner da Costa. "Once you go to full engine testing, that's a huge system that you need to test on a dedicated bench."

A brand new test bench was built at a German Space Agency site at Lampoldshausen to test the entire upper stage of Ariane 6.

French Guiana, Kourou: Construction site of the Ariane 6 launch site photographed in 2017
Big hole: In 2017, DW Science Editor Zulfikar Abbany was in French Guiana for a Vega rocket launch and saw early construction work on the Ariane 6 launch siteImage: Zulfikar Abbany/DW

Meanwhile, in French Guiana, CNES had been digging a massive hole in the ground where eventually they would build the Ariane 6 launch site.

"It all happens in parallel. You start with the smallest products and keep integrating them into a system that becomes more and more complex," said Büchner da Costa.  

Ariane 6 timeline: 2020-2022

During the pandemic years, even Ariane 6 took a hit. COVID-19 had an "immense impact" on construction at the launch site in Kourou, said Büchner da Costa.

"There were 700 people working here and within a few days, they got reduced to 50. The supply in materials slowed, logistics broke down, production in Europe slowed significantly," she said. "You don't feel it at the paper stage, but you do feel it in production."

By 2021, however, they had started moving bits of the rocket from Europe to French Guiana and conducted "early combined tests."

They tested a mock-up of the central core of the rocket, the cranes that move it to the launchpad and the cryogenic arms that fuel and cool the rocket at launch.

And — almost as a side note — they also custom-built the ship they used to transport launcher components so it was more climate-friendly: the "Canopee" sailing cargo ship uses a hybrid propulsion system, partially powered by wind.

Ariane 6 timeline: 2023-2024

Things started to pick up again in 2023. "We spent the whole of 2023 marrying the launchpad with the rocket," said Büchner da Costa.

The main stage was tested in French Guiana. "We fired up the main engine and tested the full flight up to [the rocket's initial] separation," said Büchner da Costa. That's over 7 minutes of flight.

ESA plans future of European space exploration (Nov. 2023)

The next part of the flight, where the upper stage goes in orbit, was qualified at the new test bench in Germany, "completely separately."

At the same time, engineers in Switzerland tested the fairing — that's the bit that carries the cargo and, perhaps one day, a capsule for human spaceflight — and the separation of the fairing.

"You test your system, step by step, in an incremental way, before you add any critical elements," said Büchner da Costa.

They did five complete countdowns and Büchner da Costa was there for them all. "It was really impressive to see, a full success," she said.

A full success up to 2024: the year of Ariane 6's first full mission with cargo, including cubeSats satellites and scientific experiments.

At time of writing in late June 2024, six launches were planned for 2025 and eight for 2026. By 2027, the ESA aims to achieve a launch rate of 10 per year — and then keep evolving.

Ariane 6 is about versatility, said Büchner da Costa, calling the rocket an "eierlegende Wollmilchsau." That's a German term for which there is no direct translation, but basically means something that can do a bit of everything.

"The 'eierlegende Wollmilchsau' is a pig that gives you milk, wool and lays eggs," explained Büchner da Costa. "That's what we want from Ariane 6. The exciting thing is that [Ariane 6] gives us versatility. We want to fly anywhere."

This article was original published on June 28, 2024. It has been updated with the date of Ariane 6's scheduled launch.

Edited by: Fred Schwaller

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI and the mind, and how science touches people