Final Ariane 5 Takes Flight

Final Ariane 5 Takes Flight

The last launch of Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket went off without a hitch today.  Carrying two communications satellites, one for Germany and one for France, it brought to a close an almost-perfect record as Europe waits for its replacement, Ariane 6. The end of the run for Ariane 5 is emblamatic of the changes taking place in the global space launch market overall.

The 117th and final launch of Ariane 5 took off from France’s Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana at 6:00 pm EDT. The launch was delayed from June 16 due to technical issues and again yesterday because of upper level winds, but today was perfect.

Launch of the last Ariane 5 rocket, July 5, 2023, Kourou, French Guiana. Screengrab.

The venerable rocket has a 98 percent success record since its first launch 27 years ago. Ariane 5 has launched many communications satellites like the two today, Germany’s Heinrich-Hertz-Satellit or H2S and France’s SYRACUSE 4B, but also many others including the NASA-ESA-CSA James Webb Space Telescope.

Arianespace, the European company that operates Ariane, posted a short tribute to the rocket’s legacy.

The plan was for its successor, Ariane 6, to be ready by now with a seamless transition between the two. As so often happens with the development of new rockets, Ariane 6 did not proceed on schedule. Once on the books for 2020, it now probably will not happen until next year. Arianespace and the European Space Agency aren’t setting a launch date until a number of critical milestones are met this summer.

The launch vehicle landscape is changing in Europe, the United States, and Japan all at the same time.

Europe not only is transitioning from Ariane 5 to Ariane 6 for the large launch vehicle market, but from Vega to Vega-C for small payloads. Vega-C had a success in 2022, but failed on its second launch in December and recently suffered another setback during a test last month at its manufacturer, Avio.  Medium-class payloads were launched on Russia’s Soyuz rocket, but they are no longer available for Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Japan is developing the H3 rocket to replace the H2 series, but the first H3 launch in March failed. The first stage performed perfectly, but the second stage did not. That stage is common to the H2 so all of Japan’s launch plans are uncertain at the moment.

Japan’s new H3 rocket lifts off from Tanegashima, March 6, 2023 EST. Screengrab. The first stage performed perfectly, but the second stage failed, dooming the mission.

In the United States, the United Launch Alliance is replacing its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets with Vulcan. The first launch, years behind schedule, was scheduled for May 4 but then was delayed again because of a test failure of the Centaur V upper stage. A new launch date has not been set. The next-to-last Delta launch was on June 22 and the last is scheduled for next year. While there are still quite a few Atlas V rockets in production, they are already booked so ULA is eager to get Vulcan flying.

Northrop Grumman is working with Firefly Aerospace to come up with a new version of the Antares rocket to launch Cygnus cargo missions to the International Space Station. The last of the current version, 230, is scheduled for next month. Antares 230 uses Russian RD-181 engines and the first stage is built by Ukraine. Neither is available now because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Northrop Grumman bought three SpaceX Falcon 9 launches for Cygnus to meet its contractual obligations to NASA in the interim.

SpaceX is one of the few launch services companies that’s on a roll with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy (which combines three Falcon 9s) with more than 40 launches already this year. The European Space Agency, in fact, is buying three SpaceX launches to substitute for Soyuz, rare instances in which it is using non-European rockets. The first launched ESA’s Euclid space telescope on Saturday.

But SpaceX is eager to get its new, much larger Starship in operation. The first launch failed on April 20. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk is optimistic the next attempt is only a few weeks or months away, but not only must he get FAA approval, an environmental lawsuit is pending due to the cloud of debris created on April 20 that overspread a nearby town and wildlife refuges.

The first launch of SpaceX’s Starship launch system explodes over the Gulf of Mexico after the self-destruct system was triggered, April 20, 2023. Screengrab.

Rocket Lab, a U.S.-based company that until recently launched only from New Zealand but now also launches from Virginia, has its tried-and-true Electron rocket and is now developing the larger Neutron. A number of other U.S. companies also are developing small launch vehicles for the growing market of nanosatellites, microsatellites, cubesats and smallsats, and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is working on New Glenn, its first orbital rocket, for larger satellites.

It’s a dizzying time in the rocket business not even taking into account what’s happening in China, India and elsewhere.

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