- by Jonathan Amos
- BBC Science Correspondent
The Ariane-5 rocket, which is a European heavy-lift rocket, has flown to the last mission.
The vehicle, which has boosted the continent’s access to space for nearly 3 decades Wat, ended his career by launching two telecommunication satellites.
It was generally agreed to be a highly successful launch, with only two failures in 117 outings.
But the retirement of Ariane-5 leaves Europe in a difficult situation, with no replacement ready to replace it.
The next generation rocket, Ariane-6, is still in the development and testing phase and may not make its first launch until next year.
To compound matters, Europe can no longer use Russia’s Soyuz rockets, and the smaller vehicle, Vega-C, has been shelved after a flight failure last December.
The unavailability of home-grown missiles prompted European Space Agency Director Josef Aschbacher to declare recently that “Europe finds itself … in a serious missile crisis”.
Wednesday’s final mission was carried out, as usual, from the port of Kourou in French Guiana.
The two “passengers” on board were a French defense satellite, named Syracuse 4B, and a German demonstration spacecraft, named Heinrich Hertz.
Ariane left immediately at the start of its launch window at 19:00 local time (22:00 GMT; 23:00 BST).
Dr. Aschbacher said Ariane-5 will be remembered as an outstanding vehicle.
“The performance and accuracy of Ariane-5 is quite unique, but I am confident that Ariane-6 will have the same performance and accuracy when it is on the launch pad,” he told BBC News.
The injection into orbit is precise so the observer does not need to use his own fuel to correct the trajectory, effectively doubling the operational life from 10 to 20 years.
Europe’s new high-lift rocket has been commissioned due to the cost of producing the Ariane-5. become unsustainable in the competition of the United States.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX founder has revamped the launch market with his reusable Falcons, reducing Ariane’s price point.
Ariane-6 aims to be at least 40% cheaper than Ariane-5, but it remains an “affordable” design: a new rocket is needed for every mission.
Europe is moving towards recycling, but the necessary technology will not be available until the 2030s.
In the meantime, Mr. Musk is introducing a bullet that promises to lower the launch price even further.
Wednesday’s final Ariane-5 flight went off without a hitch, with Heinrich Hertz and Syracuse 4B launched on their way to geostationary orbit about half an hour after leaving the ground.
Ariane-5 entered retirement having lifted 230 satellites into orbit, equivalent to nearly 1,000 tons of hardware.
Like James Webb, high missions included the launch of the comet-chaser Rosetta (2004); Envisat Environmental Observatory Giant (2002); 20-ton cargo space station, ATV (2008); and, most recently, Europa’s Jupiter moon explorer, Juice (2023).
The rocket was born in the 1980s as a way to launch the spacecraft called Hermes. That plan was abandoned due to cost, and the vehicle was put into service in 1996 with only high-end satellites.
For most of its career, it was the launch of half of all large telecommunications satellites.
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