WASHINGTON — The inaugural launch of Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket appears all but certain to slip into 2021 because of development delays the European Space Agency and the rocket’s manufacturer ArianeGroup attribute to the coronavirus pandemic.
Daniel Neuenschwander, the director of space transportation at the European Space Agency, told SpaceNews the coronavirus slowed or halted work on three Ariane 6 development projects.
Arianespace, the Evry, France-based company that markets Europe’s Ariane and Vega family of rockets, began the year banking on Ariane 6 making its debut between October and December. But that launch forecast was made two months before the coronavirus pandemic led to widespread shutdowns, including one that idled the Guiana Space Centre where the Ariane 6 launchpad remains unfinished. That work is expected to ramp back up next week as workers who flew to French Guiana from mainland Europe to help reopen the spaceport complete a 14-day quarantine.
Neuenschwander, in an emailed statement, said that the slowdown in launchpad construction, the postponed qualification test-firing of the P120C strap-on booster, and productivity losses at Ariane 6 industrial sites because of the coronavirus pandemic have all contributed to a delay in the rocket’s maiden flight. He declined to say how much of a delay those setbacks have induced.
“ESA is working intensely, and very closely with all actors involved, industry and CNES, to stabilize and consolidate the planning,” Neuenschwander said May 18. “Today we are daily addressing the preliminary impacts and preparing to return to a stable level of activity. We will fully consolidate the planning and assess the full impact of COVID-19 on Ariane 6 once we have more clarity on how the European economy will be able to function in the coming months.”
ArianeGroup, the prime contractor for the Ariane 6 rocket, said it is evaluating the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the Ariane 6’s maiden and subsequent flights.
“It is too early to comment on the launcher readiness for its maiden flight, due to the slowdown at ArianeGroup and throughout the supply chain,” ArianeGroup said in a May 20 statement. “Before the Covid crisis, the schedule for Ariane 6 maiden flight by end 2020 was very tight, however reachable. The schedule is now being resynchronized with our industrial partners, CNES and ESA.”
Mathieu Luinaud, a consultant at PwC’s space practice, gave two more reasons why Ariane 6 probably won’t launch this year.
“We see other launches from [the Guiana Space Center] delayed to late 2020, including ones flying on Soyuz which have high priority,” he said, citing the United Arab Emirates’ FalconEye-2 reconnaissance satellite. “That is likely going to add to the balance in postponing Ariane 6 to 2021.”
Finally, megaconstellation startup OneWeb had booked 30 small broadband satellites on the Ariane 6 maiden flight, but filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March, putting the mission in question. Luinaud said if Arianespace can’t find another customer for the Ariane 6 maiden flight this year, it may wait until 2021 to find a payload and avoid flying the rocket empty.
Arianespace Vice President Aaron Lewis declined to comment on the possible delay, deferring questions to ESA.
ESA is financing 89% of the Ariane 6 rocket’s 3.6-billion-euro ($4 billion) development, with ArianeGroup and its industry partners providing the remaining 11%.
If delayed, Ariane 6 would join United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn in encountering setbacks that pushed their maiden flights to 2021 instead of 2020.