Europe’s shiny new rocket will help find source of mystery radio signals

Europe's new rocket, Ariane 6
Europe’s new rocket, Ariane 6 (Picture: ESA/D. Ducros)

Europe’s new rocket will take off for the first time tonight, carrying equipment to investigate mysterious radio waves being beamed from the Sun.

The CubeSat Radio Interferometry Experiment, or Curie, is tasked with homing on the transmissions to work out what is responsible.

It will be launched on board the European Space Agency’s new Ariane 6 rocket from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, between 7pm and 11pm BST.

The rocket replaces Ariane 5, which was retired last July. Ariane 1 first launched in 1979, and the programme has been launching satellites and other cargo ever since – including the James Webb Space Telescope.

Ariane 6 is powered by a main engine, a Vulcain 2.1, and two disposable side boosters. Unlike SpaceX satellite launchers, Ariane 6 is not reusable, and will burn up in the atmosphere on re-entry. Its successor, Ariane Next, is already in the works and will be a reusable rocket.

The European Space Agency (ESA) will be live streaming the launch from French Guiana on its website and on YouTube, below.

The aim of the programme is not only to launch European government satellites, whether of the spy, weather or global positioning variety, but to also offer commercial launches, like SpaceX.

Today though, its cargo will include Curie, on a mission to unravel the secret of the Sun’s radio signals.

Scientists first noticed the phenomenon decades ago, and over the years determined the radio waves come from solar flares and giant eruptions on the Sun called coronal mass ejections, or CMEs.

Ariane 6: the lowdown

How big is Ariane 6?

Ariane 6 actually comes in two version, Ariane 62, which has two boosters, and Ariane 64, which has four.

Depending on the version and its cargo, the rocket can be up to 62 metres tall.

It can weigh up to 870 tonnes, about the same as one and a half Airbus A380s. It can carry almost 22 tonnes of cargo into low Earth orbit.

Ariane 62 and 64
Ariane 62 and 64 (Picture: ESA)

How much did Ariane 6 cost?

Ariane 6 cost around £3.4 billion to develop, according to the BBC, but is expected to cost a further £287 million a year to run.

Why is Ariane 6 launching from French Guiana?

Spacecraft have to be moving very fast to get into space – around 25,000 miles an hour. Because the Earth is a sphere, spinning on its axis, it moves much faster at the equator than the poles. Imagine running around an athletics track – the person in the outside lane would have to run much faster than the person on the inside to stay in line.

Ariane 6 on the launchpad
Ariane 6 last month before a wet dress rehearsal, the last major test before today’s launch (Picture: ESA/L. Bourgeon)

At the equator, rockets are effectively already moving at more than 1,000mph, giving them a head start.

It isn’t impossible to launch rockets at higher latitudes away from the equator – Russia does, from its Vostochny Cosmodrome – but the closer the better, hence Nasa launching from Florida.

CMEs are a key driver of space weather that can impact satellite communications and technology at Earth, but no one knows where the radio waves originate within a CME.

Nasa said: ‘The Curie mission aims to advance our understanding using a technique called low frequency radio interferometry, which has never been used in space before.

‘This technique relies on Curie’s two independent spacecraft – together no bigger than a shoebox – that will orbit Earth about two miles apart.

‘This separation allows CURIE’s instruments to measure tiny differences in the arrival time of radio waves, which enables them to determine exactly where the radio waves came from.’

The Sun has been particularly active in recent months, pummelling Earth with solar flares and CMEs, leading to stunning aurora and radio blackouts.

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