Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket to launch after four-year delay

If all goes well, Europe’s newest rocket, Ariane 6, will finally be launched this Tuesday from its space base in Kourou, French Guiana. In this way, the European Space Agency (ESA) is making it clear that it is ready to enter the space race with US billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

But when Ariane 6 soon orbits Earth, it will also be thanks to Belgian companies and universities. SABCA, for example, supplies parts for the engine, and the UHasselt students provide measurement equipment.

Independent access to space

“It is absolutely essential for Europe to have independent access to space,” said ESA chief Josef Aschbacher. By this, Aschbacher is referring to the competition with SpaceX. Indeed, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is the only viable alternative for launching large satellites into space, and Europe does not want to depend on other countries’ launch services to access space.

The launch of Ariane 6, after years of technical problems and development delays, should thus end Europe’s launcher crisis. The development of Ariane 6, which cost 4,5 billion euros, began in 2014, and the rocket was scheduled to take to the skies for the first time in 2020, two years before the last flight of its predecessor, Ariane 5, which had become too expensive.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Europa no longer has access to the Russian Soyuz medium launch program. The Ariane 5 and the smaller European Vega-C rocket have been grounded since a launch failed in late 2022.


At 75 million euros for an Ariane 6 flight, the new European launcher is admittedly still more expensive than a Falcon 9 launch (67 million euros), a partly reusable rocket. Yet Ariane 6, which will, in the future, carry Amazon’s internet satellites at 36,000 km altitude into orbit, among other things, is indeed innovative.

For instance, the Vinci rocket’s second-stage engine can switch off and restart, allowing multiple satellites to be delivered to the correct orbit. The rocket stage can also be jettisoned back to Earth after use, leaving no space debris in orbit.

Made in Belgium

Belgian companies and universities also collaborated in the development of the Ariane 6. For example, a group of 26 UHasselt students developed a device, OSCAR-QUBE+, that maps the magnetic field around the Earth. “We hope to improve Ariane 6’s navigation systems this way,” says student Yarne Beerden.

SABCA, known for maintaining F-16s and its successor, the F-35, makes parts for rocket engines. In Brussels, it manufactures systems that propel the missile’s nozzle in the right direction in milliseconds.

The company also makes large aluminum pieces for the rocket’s fuselage. More than 90 people work at SABCA on the Ariane 6 program. Safran, an aerospace and defense company based in Charleroi, supplies the engine with precise valves. FinallSonic, a space company based in Gosselies, builds metal structures for the launch pad.

Investment of €222 million

Belgium invests 222 million euros in the development of Ariane 6, or 3,8% of the total development costs. This ranks Belgium fifth out of 13 European countries contributing financially to Ariane 6, while France contributes just over half. “Belgium’s contribution to the ESA flows back into our economy one-to-one,” says Bart Jorissen from the business association Agoria.

According to a study by IDEA Consult, in 2018, the Belgian aerospace sector accounted for more than 6,400 full-time jobs. “Technological innovations from aerospace often spill over to other sectors,” explains Jorissen. As the space race breaks open again, this opens up growth opportunities for our country.”

In any case, the nerves will be tense because failure is always an option for maiden flights. Don’t forget that the first Ariane 5 rocket launched in 1996 lasted just 39 seconds before exploding due to a software bug.


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