Europe's Ariane 5 rocket set to fly for last time

This week, the rocket that flew James Webb to orbit will fly one last time as Arianespace prepares for the long-delayed debut flight of Ariane 6.
Chris Young
taken on April 14, 2023, shows Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket lifting off from its launchpad, at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana
April 14, 2023, Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket lifting off from its launchpad, at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana

JODY AMIET / Getty Images  

The Ariane 5 rocket, Europe's only operational orbital launch vehicle, will likely fly for the last time this week, bringing an end to almost three decades of service.

The rocket was due to lift off today from Kourou, French Guiana, carrying a French military communications satellite and a German communications satellite to geostationary transfer orbit.

Arianespace announced that today's launch was postponed due to adverse weather conditions, though the mission could still go ahead tomorrow. "Subject to favorable weather conditions, the earliest possible launch date for VA261 flight is July 5, 2023," Arianespace explained on Twitter.

Arianespace looks ahead to Ariane 6

Once Ariane 5 does take to the skies, it will lift its last payloads to orbit. Arianespace has stated it will now focus on the development of its long-delayed next-generation Ariane 6 rocket.

This puts Europe's space industry in a precarious position. 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."

What's more, as Ars Technica senior space editor Eric Berger points out, there is a lot of work left to do before Ariane 6 is operational. Arianespace must still carry out a hot fire test of the rocket's upper stage, it must perform flight software qualification tests, and it is yet to assemble the rocket on the launch pad.

Ariane 6 is also not designed to be partly reusable like SpaceX's Falcon 9, though it was envisioned as a more price-competitive launch vehicle than its predecessor. Nonetheless, ESA hopes to see the first Ariane 6 launch soon, as it will be without an operational launch provider.

During a May 10 earnings call, executives from German aerospace company OHB, a key supplier for Ariane 6, predicted that Ariane 6 will perform its long-delayed debut launch in early 2024.

Arianespace originally intended to launch Ariane 6 in 2020, but a string of delays was exacerbated by the pandemic, and it has recently remained tightlipped over any specific launch date.

Ariane 5's 117th and final launch

Ariane 5 made its debut launch attempt in 1996. That first attempt and the second ended in failure. However, since then, it has successfully performed 116 missions, launching a variety of satellite payloads and science missions to space.

Arguably Ariane 5's most notable launch came when it flew NASA's James Webb Space Telescope on December 15, 2021. The workhorse rocket also lifted ESA's Jupiter JUICE mission on April 14 this year. If all goes to plan with the JUICE mission, it will become the first-ever probe to orbit another planet's moon.

Recently, though, Europe has had to turn to SpaceX's Falcon 9 for high-profile launches, as was the case with last week's launch of the Euclid dark matter telescope. Until Ariane 6 takes to the sky, Europe is likely to be highly reliant on Elon Musk's private space company.

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