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Ariane 5, Europe's 'workhorse' rocket, launches for the last time

July 5, 2023

— A European heavy-lift rocket that was used to send astronauts' supplies into orbit, launch probes into the solar system and deploy the largest and most powerful telescope into space has lifted off for the last time.

Arianespace ignited its final Ariane 5 rocket at 6:00 p.m. EDT (2200 GMT) on Wednesday (July 5) from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. The launch, referred to as VA261, placed into Earth orbit two telecommunication satellites: Syracuse 4B for the French Ministry of Defense and the Heinrich-Hertz-Satellit for the German Space Agency. The latter was the first time Arianespace served the German Space Agency on behalf of the German government.

"Ariane 5 has just deployed two telecommunications satellites ... for France and Germany, the first two contributors to the Ariane program," said Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace, in a statement. "This mission is also emblematic of Ariane 5's ability to perform dual launches, which constitutes the very core of its success, with 197 satellites placed in geostationary orbit out of a total of 239 satellites deployed. Over its career, Ariane 5 has served 65 institutional and commercial customers from 30 countries."

The successful flight closed out 117 Ariane 5 launches over the past 27 years.

"Ariane 5 is now taking its place in the annals of global space history," said Martin Sion, CEO of ArianeGroup. "This final successful mission demonstrates once again its supreme reliability in the service of European autonomy and rounds off an exceptional career distinguished by a succession of technological and industrial achievements. I share the emotion of all the employees at ArianeGroup, Arianespace, the French and European space agencies CNES and ESA, and all our European partners, who have contributed to its success over the course of these 27 years."

Flight VA261: Ariane 5. Click to enlarge video in a new, pop-up window. (Arianespace)

Dubbed the "workhorse of Europe's independent access to space," the Ariane 5 is giving way to the Ariane 6, a next-generation launch vehicle that is still under development. The new rocket's debut had been targeted for later this year, but is now expected to make its first flight in 2024.

Like its successor, Ariane 5 was developed to be an all-new launch system. When it was introduced in 1996, the Ariane 5 more than doubled the mass-to-orbit capacity of its predecessor, the Ariane 4, which was more of an upgrade than a redesign from the Ariane 1, 2 and 3 rockets that flew between 1979 and 1989 (the Ariane 4 was in service between 1988 and 2003).

In its latest, most powerful configuration, the Ariane 5 ECA (Evolved Cryogenic, model A) was comprised of a core stage feeding liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to a Vulcain 2 engine; two solid rocket boosters that burned for the first 130 seconds of flight; and a cryogenic upper stage that was developed around the HM7B engine, thrust frame and liquid oxygen tank that was originally developed for and used by the Ariane 4's third stage.

Poised on the launch pad, the Ariane 5 stood up to 172 feet tall (52.5 meters), depending on the payload fairing that was used. Initially, the rocket could place up to two payloads weighing up to 20,100 pounds (9,100 kilograms) or a single satellite up to 21,200 pounds (9,600 kilograms) into a geosynchronous transfer orbit. Later upgrades improved the Ariane 5's performance to support up to 3,300 pounds (1,500 kilograms) more.

The majority of Ariane 5 launches were used to place communication, weather, reconnaissance and Earth observation satellites into orbit, as well as the last 12 satellites needed to complete Europe's Galileo global positioning system (GPS) constellation.

The rocket also supported 11 missions for the European Space Agency (ESA).

In 2004, an Ariane 5 sent into deep space ESA's Rosetta, the first probe to rendezvous with and deploy a lander to a comet. More recently, the rocket lofted the on-going, interplanetary voyages of BepiColombo, a joint ESA/JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) mission to the planet Mercury, and Juice, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, which lifted off earlier this year.

When designed, Ariane 5 was intended to support Hermes, a European crewed spaceplane concept. Though ESA has yet to achieve an independent human launch capability, it did use the Ariane 5 to launch uncrewed cargo missions to the International Space Station. The series of five Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV), which flew between 2008 and 2014, were each named after a European visionary, including Jules Verne, Johannes Kepler, Edoardo Amaldi, Albert Einstein and Georges Lemaître.

Ariane 5 was also the launch vehicle for the Herschel and Planck orbiting observatories and the James Webb Space Telescope, the latter a joint project with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency that surpassed Herschel as the largest astronomical instrument ever launched.

With its retirement, full-scale replicas of the Ariane 5 rocket can be found on display on the tarmac of the Air and Space Museum in Le Bourget, France; at the Cité de l'Espace in Toulouse, France; and on outdoor exhibit at Europe's Spaceport, not far from where the real rocket lifted off from in Kourou. A complete booster casing for the rocket is on exhibit at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

Smaller scale models of the Ariane 5 are in museums around the world, including the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. and at the Space Expo in Noordwijk, The Netherlands.

The Ariane 5 appeared on the reverse of commemorative gold and silver euro coins minted by France's national mint in 2014 and on postage stamps issued by Ascension Island, France and Liberia, among other countries. The rocket was the inspiration for Playmobil's 2019 "Mission Rocket with Launch Site" playset and footage of an Ariane 5 launch was part of the 2010 Disneynature documentary "Oceans" directed by Jacques Perrin.


An Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket lifts off for the 117th and final time from French Guiana on July 5, 2023. (ESA/CNES/Arianespace)

Infographic showing the iconic missions launched using the Ariane 5 rocket for the Europe and the European Space Agency. (ESA)

Ariane 5 (at right) as compared to its planned successor, the Ariane 6, shown in both of its booster configurations. (Arianespace)

Arianespace's mission patch for VA261, the 117th and final launch of the Ariane 5 rocket. (Arianespace)

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