On Wednesday, Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket took off from French Guiana, marking its final launch. The rocket successfully carried two military communications satellites into space.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has relied on the Ariane 5 to be its workhorse for 27 years. Once it is gone, the ESA will be without its own launcher for the first time in four decades and will no longer have autonomous access to space.
A successor, Ariane 6, is under development, but has been beset by problems and delays. It remains to be seen how long the ESA will be left without its own launcher.
Ariane 5’s final launch after 27 years of service to Europe
At 7 pm local time (12 am CET), the three-stage launcher, standing at 53 meters tall, departed from the launch pad at the French spaceport of Kourou.
This marked the 117th and final mission of the Ariane 5 rocket. The launch proceeded as planned, with the rocket successfully deploying two satellites approximately 30 minutes later, as reported by a live webcast.
“Ariane 5 is now over, and Ariane 5 has perfectly finished its work,” said Stephane Israel, the Arianespace CEO.
Until recently, Europe relied on the Ariane 5 rocket, renowned for its 11-tonne-plus capacity, utilized for the most important missions. Additionally, medium payloads were entrusted to Russia’s Soyuz launcher, while Italy’s Vega launcher was used for smaller missions.
However, due to escalating tensions over Ukraine, Moscow withdrew access to the Soyuz launcher last year. Furthermore, the upgraded Vega C launcher has been grounded since its second launch failed in December. These developments have led to what the head of the ESA has referred to as a “crisis” in space launches.
ESA faces gap in capabilities
With the Ariane 5 rocket now having made its final launch, Europe faces a gap in its space capabilities.
During the Paris Air Show in June, Guillaume Faury, the CEO of Airbus, which co-owns manufacturer ArianeGroup with Safran of France, emphasized Europe’s “vulnerability” in space. Faury stated that the responsibility now rests on the upcoming Ariane 6 rocket to address these concerns and ensure Europe’s continued competitiveness in space exploration.
The maiden test launch of Ariane 6 is anticipated to take place by the end of this year, contingent upon the summer tests that will be conducted. Following the test phase, the first commercial operation is scheduled for the subsequent year.
The Ariane series, initially led by France, Germany, and the UK, played a pioneering role in commercial launches. However, it now faces formidable competition from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, necessitating the development of a more cost-effective Ariane 6 to enhance competitiveness against the Falcon 9.