Europe regains access to space with Ariane 6

Portugal is making its presence felt at this vital moment through the participation of some Portuguese companies in developing the new launcher, which carries on board the nanosatellite built by students and professors from the Instituto Superior Técnico.

If all goes according to plan, Europe will regain its autonomous access to space on the night of Tuesday, 9 July. The new European Ariane 6 rocket, scheduled to launch between 07 pm and 11 pm (Lisbon time), promises to usher in a new era of space transport, giving Europe back access to space.

A historic moment that will also be inscribed in the Portuguese space narrative: onboard Ariane 6 is a nanosatellite built by students and professors from the Instituto Superior Técnico (IST), whose launch is ensured thanks to Portugal’s participation in the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Fly your Satellite programme.

ISTSAT-1 will receive ADS-B signals (aeronautical communication system) from aircraft while orbiting 587 kilometres above the Earth, allowing its detection in remote areas.

“The ISTSAT-1 nanosatellite is proof of the work, commitment and knowledge being acquired by higher education institutions in the space sector in Portugal. The fact that it can be put into orbit on the new European launcher demonstrates the close collaboration between the various ESA Member States, including Portugal, through the Portuguese Space Agency, and their initiatives, which are becoming increasingly collaborative,” says Pedro Coimbra, Educational Programmes Manager at the Portuguese Space Agency.

ISTSAT-1 will be one of nearly two dozen satellites to be launched on Ariane 6, a rocket 63 metres high and 5.4 metres in diameter. Available in two versions, with two or four propellants depending on the power required and the payload, the maiden flight will take place with the Ariane 62, capable of launching up to 4.5 tonnes into geostationary orbit and 10.3 tonnes into low orbit. In its case, the four-propellant version, the Ariane 64, can carry up to 11.5 tonnes and 21.6 tonnes, respectively.

“This new European rocket has new features, particularly in its greater flexibility and power to carry not only more satellites but also larger satellites than its predecessors, at lower manufacturing costs and with simplified production,” says Inês d’Ávila, responsible for the Space Safety and Transportation areas at the Portuguese Space Agency. “The upper stage engine of this launcher, the new Vinci engine, has the ability to be activated several times, providing a great improvement in terms of precision when inserting the various satellites on board into orbit.”

Ariane 6 is a project of the European Space Agency (ESA), the construction of which was awarded to ArianeGroup, and the development of which was awarded to Arianespace from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

A tale of four decades

The Ariane 6 project was launched in 2014 and initially had its maiden flight scheduled for 2020, but the successor to Ariane 5, which stopped flying in July 2023, suffered several delays.

Ariane 6 is the latest in a long line of European launchers whose genesis dates back to 1973. The first rocket was launched six years later, in 1979. In 1996, the debut of Ariane 5 granted Europe an important boost in space transportation. With a total of 117 launches, 115 of which were successful, Ariane 5 was responsible for launching important missions such as the Rosetta Space Probe (2004), the James Webb Space Telescope (2021), and the JUICE mission (2023), among many others.

With Ariane 6, Europe aimed to create a launcher that would be competitive enough to take on the big private operators, such as SpaceX, and also respond to the problems of the sustainability of space operations. “Ariane 6 was also developed with space sustainability in mind, as the Vinci engine will perform a final ignition in order to remove the last stage from space and thus reduce the creation of debris,” Inês d’Ávila explains.

“However, it remains extremely important for Europe to have independent and autonomous access to space capable of guaranteeing the sovereignty of the Member States and this is where Ariane 6 comes in, while we look forward to the various European developments in the area of small launchers,” says Inês d’Ávila.

Joan Alabart, head of the Portuguese Space Agency’s Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Space Exploration programmes, recalls that the development of European launchers, under the umbrella of the European Space Agency, involves the participation of many countries and companies from across the continent. “This promotes the feeling of a common, shared space programme and contributes to the geographical distribution across Europe of industrial contracts that have created capacities across the continent.”

The national contribution

Ariane 6’s launch is the culmination of more than a decade of work involving 13 ESA Member States and more than 600 companies from all over Europe, including the involvement of some Portuguese partners.

“There are a range of Portuguese companies taking part in the launcher’s supply chain. On the one hand, we have Critical Software which developed vehicle telemetry software, on the other ISQ which participates in recurring activities at the French Guiana Spaceport, and Evoleo which was responsible for developing the power distribution and control unit (PDCU) for the video telemetry kit,” Joan Alabart explains.

Evoleo’s PDCU unit is integrated into the video system developed by Ireland’s Réaltra Space Systems Engineering, which will capture and transmit high-resolution video images from cameras strategically positioned on Ariane 6. Finally, we must note the role of Thales-Edisoft Portugal, which operates the Santa Maria Teleport, which has already been involved in the preparatory tests for tonight’s launch, and which “will contribute to establishing communications during a critical phase of the mission”, according to an official source from the company.

See how to watch and what to look for on the launch of Ariane 6 here.

Portugal Space
9 of July, 2024