Prior to the Launch of Ariane 6, What Other Major Rockets Exist?

The upcoming launch of Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket signals a shift in the competitive market for heavy space launchers, currently dominated by SpaceX. The Ariane 6, the largest rocket launcher of the European Space Agency, is set to take its maiden flight on July 9 from the European spaceport in French Guiana. This new rocket is geared to replace the Ariane 5, which ended its service with 117 launches over nearly three decades in 2023.

This new launcher features two different configurations. When launched with two boosters, the Ariane 6 can transport 4.5 tonnes of payload, such as satellites, to a geostationary orbit at 36,000 kilometres above Earth. It can also deliver over 10 tonnes to a low Earth orbit. A four-boosters configuration, planned for next year, will increase the payload capacity to 11.5 tonnes for geostationary orbit and 21.6 tonnes for low Earth orbit. These capabilities are particularly relevant as the lower region of space is expected to house 85% of satellites launched by 2032.

The Ariane 6 also boasts the ability to deploy satellite constellations across different orbits, thanks to the Vinci engine in its upper stage. However, unlike its main competitor, Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9, the Ariane 6 is not reusable.

The Falcon 9, which has dominated the market with 350 launches since 2010, can deliver over eight tonnes to geostationary orbit and nearly 23 tonnes to low Earth orbit. SpaceX is also developing the Starship rocket, capable of transporting up to 150 tonnes in reusable form and 250 tonnes when not reusable. It successfully landed for the first time last month after three previous exploding attempts.

Meanwhile, Blue Origin’s reusable New Glenn is set to have its first flight in September. The rocket, towering at nearly 100 metres, can carry 13 tonnes into geostationary orbit and 45 tonnes into low Earth orbit. It is expected to aid in launching Amazon’s Kuiper satellite internet constellation.

Other significant players in the field include the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, Japan’s flagship H3 rocket, Russia’s Angara A5, and China’s Long March 5. These rockets possess diverse capabilities and payload capacities, contributing to a quickly evolving market for heavy space launchers.

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