© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A worker of Ariane Group stands in front of a Ariane 6 rocket’s Vulcain 2.1 engine, prior to the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron, in Vernon, France January 12, 2021. Christophe Ena/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
PARIS (Reuters) – Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket will stage an inaugural flight between June 15 and July 31 in 2024, the European Space Agency said on Thursday.
The keenly awaited window for the first test flight came after a test model of the new rocket passed a key long-firing engine test in French Guiana last week.
ESA nations agreed in 2014 to develop Ariane 6 in response to growing competition in the commercial launch market but its arrival, originally due in 2020, has been repeatedly delayed.
“I am really happy to make this announcement today because it shows that we are on the good track to flight access to space for Europe,” ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher told a news conference.
The maiden flight will carry some smaller satellites, including two from NASA, but since it is still considered a test flight, it will not carry “a major payload”, ESA added.
The ESA will carry out a few additional tests before the launch to make sure the design is “fault tolerant”.
The ESA said it planned a second flight by the end of 2024 and would ramp up further in 2025 to reach a target of 9-10 flights per year.
The launcher is being developed by ArianeGroup, a joint venture between Airbus and Safran (EPA:), in order to better compete with U.S. private launch provider SpaceX.
Its predecessor, Ariane 5, flew for the last time in July and the smaller Vega C remains grounded following a failure in December last year, leaving Europe without independent access to space. Russia blocked European use of its Soyuz rockets last year in response to Western sanctions over Ukraine.
Last week’s test at the European spaceport in French Guiana involved igniting the core-stage Vulcain 2.1 engine and then running it for seven minutes, which is about the time it would take for the launcher to reach space.
Aschbacher said last month he hoped to be able to announce a launch window for an inaugural flight to be held in 2024, depending on the results of the engine test.