Meet Ariane 6 and Vega C: Europe's New 'Rideshare' Rockets (Videos)

Europe is taking advantage of the small-satellite trend by building two rockets that act as a rideshare, taking several spacecraft up at the same time. Two new videos show what to expect with the new boosters, which are called Ariane 6 and Vega C.

Next year will be a big one for the European Space Agency — both vehicles will fly for the first time. An agency animation shows how its heavy-lift vehicle Ariane 6 will come together, stage by stage. 

The animation shows the upper stage rolling into an assembly building at the Guiana Space Center in French Kourou, soon to be joined by an additional stage. After joining up, the two stages — forming a central core — ride down a path to where the launch will take place. Boosters and other pieces are added, including the satellites, which ride inside a payload at the top. Then Ariane 6 launches into space.

Ariane 6 will be the replacement vehicle for ESA's current heavy-lift rocket, Ariane 5, and it's trying to stay competitive in a launch industry suddenly flooded with new entrants from private companies. Thus, Ariane 6 includes components such as modular construction and shares some technology with Vega C to save on costs, Arianespace, which launches Ariane rocket missions with ESA infrastructure, said in a statement. (One of the things the rocket shares with Vega C is the P120 engine in the Ariane 6 solid rocket motors, for example.)

And there are 15 boosters already in development, Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA's director of space transportation, noted in a second video. "Industry has started the production of the first 14 launchers of Ariane 6 in addition to the maiden flight," he said. 

While Ariane 6 covers the heavy launches, Vega C will pick up the load on lightweight payloads — taking over from Vega. One of its innovations includes a "small spacecraft mission service," a payload that allows more than a dozen small satellites to be launched within the fairing. Notably, this payload can be used on both Vega and Vega C.

One of Vega C's first payloads could be a reusable spacecraft called Space Rider, an automated space-shuttle type vehicle that can fly payloads into space and glide them back onto Earth on a runway. That is pending a ministerial decision at a conference in Seville in November 2019, ESA said in a statement accompanying the video.

Space Rider is a successor spacecraft to the Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV) that ESA flew into space on a test flight in February 2015. Some of Space Rider's missions could include deploying small satellites, doing microgravity experiments or performing Earth observations, ESA officials said in the video.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: