The Ariane 5 rocket will make its final flight on Tuesday after a 27-year career that has made it a symbol of a European space industry that is now facing a shortage of shuttles in a fiercely competitive environment.
On its 117th and final flight, scheduled for Tuesday from 21:30 to 23:05 GMT from Kourou, French Guiana, Ariane 5 will carry a French military communications satellite and a German experimental satellite.
The launch will be “charged with emotion” for the teams at the Guiana Space Center, whose last decades of work have revolved around the rocket, director Marie-Anne Claire told AFP.
Ariane 5 has been “an incredible human adventure,” said Philippe Baptiste, CEO of the National Center for Space Studies (CNES).
The launch of the launch vehicle was not easy when it exploded on its first flight in 1996.
However, it had a single failure later in 2002.
It was a “traumatic experience” that “left a deep mark on us,” recalls Hervé Gilibert, the architect of the jug at the time.
“It took us two years to get back on the air,” says the current CTO of ArianeGroup.
Since then, Ariane 5 has gone from success to success. The hiccups at launch had “the beneficial effect of keeping us on our toes,” says the engineer.
– Rosetta, James Webb, Juice –
The rocket developed a reputation for being reliable, which led NASA to entrust its iconic $10 billion James Webb telescope to it.
The Christmas 2021 launch was the apotheosis for the rocket that sent the Rosetta probes to comet Churi (2004) and Juice to Jupiter (April 2023).
From a commercial standpoint, it was “the vanguard of space Europe,” says Daniel Neuenschwander, director of space transportation at the European Space Agency (ESA).
Twelve countries were involved in the production of the heavy launch vehicle that replaced the Ariane 4, with twice the launch capacity, allowing Europe to dominate the satellite market.
According to Neuenschwander, Europe was able to take advantage of the “recession period” in the United States.
“Today we are experiencing the exact opposite situation” and Europe is deprived of independent access to space, he points out.
The main reason is the abrupt cessation of the use of Soyuz missiles after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
There were only six venues in 2022, compared to 15 in 2021.
The failure in December 2022 of the first commercial flight of the Vega-C light launch vehicle and the delay of the future Ariane 6 exacerbated the situation.
– Hard times –
After the last release of Ariane 5 and even the first Ariane 6, by the end of 2023 at best, there will only be one Vega release in September.
More powerful and competitive, at half the cost of the Ariane 5, the Ariane 6 was designed to compete in a highly competitive launch vehicle market dominated by US company SpaceX, which launches more than one rocket a week.
ESA had to turn to Elon Musk’s company for the Euclid science mission and the EarthCare atmospheric observation satellite.
What worries the Europeans the most is the uncertainty that they can guarantee the strategic deployment of the next satellites of Galileo, the navigation system of the European Union.
Ariane 6 qualification tests are in full swing. At a dress rehearsal held at Kourou on 22 June, the launcher was unveiled on the launch site prior to the test firing of the Vulcain 2.1 engine.