In preparation for the scheduled launch of Ariane 6 in the second quarter of 2022, the European Space Agency (ESA) inaugurated the rocket’s launch complex at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana Tuesday. The finished facilities will support rocket launches for years or even decades to come.
Built primarily by the French space agency CNES and its European industry partners, the launch complex holds structures above and below ground that are large enough to be clearly seen from space. The main elements include the launch pad with two exhaust ducts, the launch vehicle assembly building, and the mobile gantry, a type of crane that will integrate the launch vehicle.
“The Ariane 6 launch complex is a remarkable achievement and an icon of European cooperation and advancement,” said Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA Director of Space Transportation. “It represents a vital part of a program of intense activity at Europe’s Spaceport to prepare for the first flight of ESA’s next-generation launch vehicle.”
28.5 m deep and 200 m wide, the launch pad’s basic structure was poured in concrete and is the volume of 67 Olympic-sized swimming pools. At its center is the 700-ton launch table, which protects a host of support systems below ground and will bear the weight of Ariane 6. It was built by MT Aerospace in Germany and shipped to the spaceport for integration on the launch pad.
The Ariane 6 core and upper stages will be integrated horizontally inside the launch vehicle assembly building and prepared for rollout to the launch zone. Horizontal integration lowers the cost of facilities and launcher integration while offering a higher level of flexibility and growth potential, allowing easier access to the whole rocket.
Ariane 6’s final integration will take place inside the mobile gantry. Clocking in at 8,200 tons heavy and 90 m high, the gantry weighs more than the Eiffel Tower and is designed to protect the rocket on the launch table during each launch campaign. Work platforms will enable engineers to vertically position Ariane 6’s central core directly on the launch table, add two or four boosters depending on the launch configuration, and integrate the fairing that houses the payload.
Overall, the ESA hopes the Ariane 6 approach to integration and operations will reduce the duration of a launch campaign from months to weeks.
A marvel of engineering, the Ariane 6 launch complex is designed to optimize the launch system performance and operations workflow. Its design benefits from lessons learned in the construction and operation of the existing Ariane, Vega, and Soyuz launch complexes at the spaceport.
The launch complex’s systems, however, are still being tested. While the deluge system that will protect Ariane 6 and ground installations from the acoustic energy created at liftoff has already been tested, the disconnection of the fluidic systems for the rocket on the launchpad (previously tested in France) are now being tested again on the launch pad. Further combined tests between the launcher and launch base are underway.
ESA signed a contract with CNES for the launch base development in 2015. The latter agency allocated a third of the €600 million it received in funding to infrastructure with notable involvement of local industry for construction, materials and equipment, and the remainder to contracts in mainland Europe.
Frank White has authored or coauthored numerous books on topics ranging from space exploration to climate change to artificial intelligence. His best-known work, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human...
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