The European Space Agency (ESA) hailed the launch of its latest heavy-lift rocket late yesterday (9 July) as a game changer for the continent’s astral ambitions, providing a much-needed boost for the launch of payloads including communications satellites.

Ariane 6 took off from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, in what the ESA described as the culmination of years of work by thousands of people. The demonstration flight was arranged to prove the rocket can reach space and deploy its payloads, in this case a range of satellites and testing equipment from various space agencies, companies, research institutions and universities.

The rocket replaces Ariane 5, offering more configuration options around the number of boosters and payload capacity. A key feature is a new restartable upper stage, which enables the latest craft to conduct multiple deployments at various orbits and then re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere to prevent it becoming space debris.

French space agency CNES constructed the Spaceport facility: its CEO Philippe Baptiste said the launch meant “Europe has finally recovered its capacity to access space”.

Baptiste acknowledged work by teams across Europe, stating the region “can be proud of its knowledge and expertise”.

Martin Sion, CEO of the rocket’s primary construction contractor ArianeGroup, said the launch is testament to the “unfailing commitment” of the European space industry.

The launch “marks the culmination of an outstanding technical and technological adventure”, Sion said.

A white rocket stands vertically on a launch pad under a clear blue sky with scattered clouds. Surrounding the rocket are support structures and towers. The area appears prepared for an imminent launch. Sunlight casts bright flares in the upper right corner.

Ground facilities were also tested. The ESA explained the Spaceport will enable a “faster turnover of Ariane launches”.

A commercial launch scheduled for later this year was noted to already have a solid order book.

Ariane 6 is designed to boost Europe’s autonomy for orbital launches, but it faces competition from big-name rivals including SpaceX’s Starship rocket, which is currently undergoing a series of test launches.

SpaceX owner Elon Musk last week stated the fifth Starship test was around four weeks away.

The project faces a potential environmental backlash, though, after an investigation by The New York Times (NYT) found significant damage to the land surrounding SpaceX’s launch site in the US state of Texas after test launch four in June, in particular areas used by migrating birds.

NYT reported issues including “fires, leaks, explosions” and more had been caused on “at least 19 occasions” by SpaceX operations since 2019.