The Final Flight of Ariane 5 Means That Europe is Out of Rockets

The Ariane 5 rocket, developed by Arianespace for the European Space Agency (ESA), has had a good run! The rocket series made its debut in 1996 and has been the workhorse of the ESA for decades, performing a total of 117 launches from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. The many payloads it has sent to space include resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS), the BepiColombo probe, the comet-chasing Rosetta spacecraft, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE), and countless communication and science satellites.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. In 2020, Arianespace and the ESA signed contracts for the rocket’s last eight launches before the Ariane 6 (a heavier two-stage launcher) would succeed it. The Ariane 5‘s final flight (VA261) lifted off from Europe’s Spaceport at 06:00 PM EST (03:00 PM PST) on July 5th, 2023, and placed two payloads into their planned geostationary transfer orbits (GTO) about 33 minutes later. On the downside, this means that the ESA is effectively out of launch vehicles until the Ariane 6 makes its debut next year.

The payloads included the German aerospace agency’s (DLR) Heinrich Hertz experimental communications satellite and the French communications satellite Syracuse 4b. The Ariane rocket family began development during the 1960s and reflected a common desire among European nations to achieve independent launch capability. Several European countries and their respective space agencies came together to see this happen, including the UK Space Agency (UKSA), the National Center for Space Studies (CNES), and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

By 1975, these efforts resulted in the merger of the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) and the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) to create the ESA. Introduced between 1979 and 1986, the agency’s first three launch vehicles (Ariane 1, 2, and 3) were essentially variations of the same three-stage design that could only send payloads to LEO. The Ariane 4 was slightly larger and had a comparable payload to the Ariane 3, but could send payloads to GTO. The Ariane 5, however, was designed to be an entirely new launch system to participate in the ISS program.

The result was a two-stage rocket that fulfilled this purpose, delivering all five of the ESA’s ISS resupply missions between 2008 and 2015 using the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). Between the Ariane 5’s multiple variants, the heavy launch system is capable of deploying 16,000 to 20,000 kg (35,000 – 44,000 lbs) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and 6,950 to 10,865 kg (15,320 to 23,953 lbs) to Geostationary Orbit (GSO). This is more than twice the payload capacity of the Ariane 4, which served the ESA’s many agencies and commercial partners between 1998 and 2003.

The ability to place heavy payloads into high orbits and send them to deep space has made the Ariane 5 highly effective at deploying cutting-edge astrophysics missions. According to the ESA, the Ariane 6 will be capable of delivering heavier payloads to LEO and GTO and providing greater launch flexibility. According to a recent update from the European aerospace firm OHB SE (the company developing the Ariane 6), the rocket will be ready to make its inaugural flight in early 2024.

And so we bid farewell to the Ariane 5, a workhorse rocket that kept delivering and made many missions possible, and hope that its successor will be ready to go before too long!

Further Reading: ESA