Nfter 117 launches in 27 years, it’s over, Europe’s largest carrier rocket, Ariane 5, is history. On Wednesday, at 7 p.m. local time sharp, the rocket lifted off from the spaceport in French Guiana on the north-east coast of South America for the last time. Symbolically, it transported a German and a French state communications satellite into space.
But the farewell flight is also the beginning of a bigger crisis. Because the once planned smooth transition to the successor model Ariane 6 does not work. Europe is thus at least temporarily without a larger rocket.
The completion of Ariane 6 has already been delayed by three years. Instead of 2020, it will probably be 2024 before the new rocket, developed for more than four billion euros, takes off for its premiere flight.
Before Ariane 6’s first flight, discussions are already underway about its successor
Worse than the delays is probably the fact that even before the first flight of Ariane 6, the rocket that will follow (Ariane Next) is being discussed. Because the successor to Ariane 5 is considered by critics to be technically outdated even before the first flight. It is not reusable, as are the rockets from the SpaceX group of technology entrepreneur Elon Musk.
So on the last flight of Ariane 5 there was a strange mixture of melancholy, worry and defiant confidence. The general contractor for the construction of the aircraft, the ArianeGroup, a joint venture between Airbus and Safran, found pathetic words about the Ariane 5 farewell. The model is a legend and leaves an indelible impression, it said in a short message.
The head of the rocket marketer Arianespace, Stéphane Israël, spoke shortly after the start of a “perfect farewell to Ariane 5”. Now the focus is on the new Ariane 6 rocket. Experts agree that, against the background of the launch into space and great efforts in the USA and China, Europe must be careful not to fall behind.
Russian Soyuz rockets are no longer booked
Part of the European list of concerns is the gap that is now emerging and even widening. Ariane 5 is no longer flying, Ariane 6 is not ready. Also, since the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, the Europeans have stopped using Soyuz rockets, which were previously eagerly booked.
In addition, there are new major problems with the Vega-C rocket, the little brother of Ariane, so to speak. After a false start, there were now difficulties with the upper stage engine during a test, in which a key component from Ukraine is to be installed more frequently in the future. It is now unclear whether the Vega C model will fly again this year as planned.
Europe is therefore now almost blank on larger transport rockets, while SpaceX about aiming for 100 starts this year. Because of their needs, the Europeans are now booking satellite launches from their US competitor. He obviously not only offers cheaper prices – he can also start. The space agency ESA should actually always allow the Europeans satellite access to space.
The farewell mission was planned earlier
Numerous industry representatives had traveled to the farewell mission of Ariane 5 to the spaceport near the jungle to follow the last launch. The farewell mission, officially known as VA261, was actually planned for June 16th. But when the guests were already there, problems with the pyrotechnics used to blow off the additional rockets (boosters) became known. Recently there was also a postponement of the start due to unfavorable high-altitude winds.
In contrast to the failed maiden flight, Ariane 5’s last flight went smoothly. The rocket has built a reputation over the years as a very reliable model. NASA even entrusted Ariane 5 with launching the $10 billion James Webb telescope at the end of 2021.
During the last launch, Ariane 5 apparently delivered its payload perfectly in space. On the one hand, there was the Heinrich Hertz satellite from Germany, which is being used to test new communications technology. The focus is on applications for science. But the Bundeswehr should also benefit from the technologies. The satellite is being financed by the German Aerospace Center and was built under the direction of the Bremen-based OHB Group. The contract for the satellite, which costs more than 300 million euros, was signed in 2017.
On the other hand, the last Ariane 5 also carried the French military communications satellite Syracuse 4B. New technologies are to be used that can no longer be disrupted. However, it will take about six months for both satellites to reach their final position in geostationary orbit at an altitude of 36,000 kilometers.