By Tim Hepher
PARIS (Reuters) -European space officials said on Monday they face crucial timing decisions in the coming weeks on the return to flight of Europe's flagship space launchers following a series of delays.
The inaugural launch of Europe's new Ariane 6 launcher has been delayed until next year, while the failure of a test on the smaller Vega C has hampered chances of a return to service in 2023 for that rocket after it was grounded in December 2022.
Europe's third traditional path to space, the Russian Soyuz programme, was interrupted last year amid the breakdown in East-West relations following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Those development have left Europe scrambling to close the gap in launch capability as competition heats up in the market for commercial launches, with the larger and modernised Ariane 6 designed to be more competitive against rivals led by Elon Musk's SpaceX.
In a news conference, the European Space Agency said it plans to set a window for the first launch of the Ariane 6 in early October after completing a series of engine tests.
The next of these is due on Tuesday after efforts to light the engine of the main section, at the launch site in French Guiana, were postponed on Aug 29. A separate test of the complex upper stage was carried out successfully in Germany on Friday.
ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher declined to commit to a full launch in the first half of next year, but told reporters results so far pointed to a test debut "not too late" in 2024, followed by the first commercial mission about 6 months later.
Ariane 6 is being developed at a cost of 4 billion euros to succeed Ariane 5, which ended operations in July, leaving European nations with a vacuum in autonomous access to space for the first time in more than four decades.
Italy's Vega C was grounded in December 2022 after its second mission went wrong. Investigators blamed the launch failure on a faulty engine part and a fresh probe was launched in June after the failure of a ground test.
Aschbacher said the timing of Vega C's return to operation would be set after the commission reports later this month.
The previous generation Vega rocket is meanwhile due to carry out its first launch since the 2022 grounding of its larger new sister model on Oct. 4.
(Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Jason Neely and Alison Williams)