WASHINGTON – A chapter in European access to space ended on July 5 with the final launch of Ariane 5, but the start of the next chapter faces further delays.
An Ariane 5 was launched at 6 p.m. EST from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. The launch was scheduled for June 16 but was postponed a day in advance after Arianespace concluded that three pyrotechnic transmission lines used to separate the rocket’s solid rocket boosters needed to be replaced. The company pushed back the launch to July 4, but pushed it back another day due to strong winds in the upper elevations.
As with so many Ariane 5 missions, this launch, designated VA261, carried two communications satellites destined for geostationary transfer into orbit. Barely 30 minutes after launch, the rocket launched the Heinrich Hertz satellite, a spacecraft that OHB had built for the German Space Agency on behalf of other German government agencies. The 3,400-kilogram satellite will test advanced communications technologies.
About three and a half minutes later, the rocket dropped the other payload, the Syracuse 4B satellite for the French military. The 3,570 kg satellite was developed by a consortium of Airbus Defense and Space and Thales Alenia Space using an Airbus Eurostar 3000 bus.
“Tonight is a success for ‘Team Europe’ with this final and final Ariane 5,” said Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace, on the company’s launch webcast after confirming the successful delivery of the payload.
“Thank you for ArianeGroup, Arianespace and CNES. It was a wonderful launch, even if it’s the last,” said General Michel Sayegh, director of space programs at the French defense agency DGA, during the launch webcast.
The start was the 117th and last flight of Ariane 5 over 27 years. The vehicle made its first unsuccessful launch in June 1996 and suffered a partial failure on its second launch in October 1997 before achieving unqualified success on its third launch in October 1998. The rocket’s ability to carry two large geostationary communications satellites simultaneously made it a key vehicle in the commercial space industry for many years at a time when geostationary communications satellites dominated the market.
The European Space Agency also regularly used the rocket for several science missions, as well as the launch of five automated transfer vehicle cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station between 2008 and 2014. In what is perhaps the rocket’s best-known launch, it successfully launched the James Webb Space Telescope for NASA on Christmas Day 2021 it on such a precise trajectory that the life of the spacecraft was significantly extended by reducing the amount of fuel needed for trajectory correction maneuvers.
“Ariane 5 is over now, and Ariane 5 has completed its work perfectly and is now truly a legendary launch vehicle,” Israël said. “But Ariane 6 is coming.”
Waiting for Ariane 6
Ahead of the final launch of Ariane 5, Arianespace has announced a “space continuum” of past and future rockets, but this continuum is not necessarily continuous. The Ariane 5 overlapped the end of the Ariane 4 rocket, which last launched in 2003. ESA originally planned a similar overlap between the end of Ariane 5 and the launch of its successor, Ariane 6.
However, there were delays in the development of Ariane 6, which meant that the first launch, originally planned for 2020, was delayed by several years. In October 2022, ESA announced that it forecast the first launch for the fourth quarter of 2023, but it is increasingly likely that the launch will be pushed back to 2024.
Executives at OHB, a supplier to the Ariane 6 program, said in a conference call in May that they expect the first Ariane 6 launch to be in early 2024 and no later than May 2024. “I’m becoming more and more confident that we will.” “The first launch of Ariane 6 will take place early next year,” said Marco Fuchs, CEO of OHB, during the call.
ESA and Arianespace have declined to give an updated launch date for this first mission. “Today it would be speculative to name a launch date,” said ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher during a press conference on June 29 after an ESA Council meeting in Stockholm. “We have a number of technical milestones to achieve over the summer, but I promise that after the summer we will provide a timeframe in September that will be considered the target timeline for Ariane 6.”
These milestones include a hot-fire test of the Ariane 6 upper stage scheduled for July at a test facility in Lampoldshausen, Germany, followed by a second test in the fall to test its performance in so-called “degraded” cases. According to an ESA update released on June 8, assembly of the first Ariane 6 flight model is scheduled to begin in November in French Guiana.