Ariane 5 aces final launch, paving the way for debut of Ariane 6

And Europe currently has no operational rocket at its disposal.
Chris Young
Ariane 5 taking off for the last time.
Ariane 5 taking off for the last time.


Europe's workhorse Ariane 5 rocket aced its final launch, as its maker Arianespace now looks ahead to the debut of its long-delayed Ariane 6.

The Ariane 5 rocket took off from the European Spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana, at 6 p.m. ET, July 5. Arianespace and The European Space Agency (ESA) had originally intended for the final launch of Ariane 5 to take place after the debut of Ariane 6.

A long string of delays to Ariane 6, however, means that Europe currently has no operational rocket, and it likely won't have one until next year.

Ariane 5's 117th and final flight

The Ariane 5 rocket was originally scheduled to lift off on June 16, but that launch was postponed due to an issue with the launch vehicle's transmission lines. A July 4 launch was then also delayed by strong upper-level winds.

The successful July 5 launch, designated VA261, lifted two communications satellites to a geostationary transfer orbit. Roughly 30 minutes after liftoff, the rocket deployed the Heinrich-Hertz-Satellit developed by OHB for the German Space Agency. The satellite was designed to test advanced communications technologies.

Approximately three and a half minutes later, Ariane 5 deployed its second payload, the Syracuse 4B satellite for the French military.

The launch was the 117th and final flight for Ariane 5. Arianespace will now focus on the development of Ariane 6, which likely won't fly until next year.

"It is a success for 'Team Europe' tonight with this last and final Ariane 5," Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said on the company's live webcast of the launch soon after deployment. You can watch the entire launch stream, as it happened, in the embedded video below.

Ariane 6 "is coming", but when?

The final launch of Ariane 5 also poses a problem for Europe's space industry. During the European Space Agency's (ESA) annual media briefing in January, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher explained that "from mid-2023, we do not have guaranteed access to space for European launches, and this is a huge problem."

Europe currently has no other operational rocket at its disposal. The continent's Vega-C rocket is still grounded after a launch failure last year and the debut of Ariane 6 has been delayed on several occasions.

On July 1, with Arianespace preparing for the final launch of Ariane 5, ESA had to turn to SpaceX to launch its dark matter Euclid telescope aboard a Falcon 9.

Before it can launch Ariane 6, Arianespace must perform a hot fire test on the rocket's upper stage, and flight software qualification tests, and it has also yet to assemble the entire rocket on the launch pad.

During a May 10 earnings call, executives from German aerospace company OHB, a key supplier for Ariane 6, said they believed Ariane 6 will likely have its debut launch in early 2024. Arianespace originally intended to launch Ariane 6 in 2020, but a string of delays has pushed back the rocket's debut. Recently, Arianespace has remained tightlipped over any specific launch date.

Ariane 5's most notable launch arguably came when it lifted NASA's James Webb Space Telescope on its way to Lagrange Point 2 on December 15, 2021. It also launched ESA's Jupiter JUICE spacecraft on April 14, this year.

Ariane 5's first launch attempt came in 1996. The rocket's first and second launch attempts ended in failure, but it has since gone on to perform 117 successful missions, including its last launch this week.

Ariane 6 won't be partially reusable like SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, but it was designed to lower launch costs and make it more price-competitive. "Ariane 5 is now over, and Ariane 5 has perfectly finished its work and really is now a legendary launcher," Israël said during the webcast. "But Ariane 6 is coming."

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