Goodbye to the Ariane 5, the ‘Swiss Knife’ of Europe’s launch industry

by Bella Richards

The Ariane 5 flew for the very last time on Wednesday, July 5, sending government communication satellites for Germany and France into space. Also known as flight VA261, the rocket launched from the Centre Spatial Guyanais (CSG) in Kourou, French Guiana, at 22:00 UTC.

The satellites onboard the Ariane 5 included the Heinrich-Hertz (H2SAT), on behalf of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and the Syracuse 4B, on behalf of the French Defence Procurement Agency (DGA). Flight VA261 lasted for 33 minutes and 32 seconds from lift-off to the separation of the last satellite, according to Arianespace, the operator of the Ariane 5, and will place the payloads into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

The launch was initially scheduled for June 16 but was delayed due to “the redundancy of a critical function on the Ariane 5,” according to a Tweet by Arianespace, the rocket operator. On June 23, ArianeGroup, the manufacturer of the vehicle,  announced the updated launch date after the company replaced the three pyrotechnical transmission lines associated with the solid rocket boosters that were identified as the issue.

According to the flight sequence published by the rocket contractor ArianeGroup, Heinrich-Hertz separated from the upper stage at approximately T+29:55 minutes after lift-off, followed shortly by Syracuse 4B satellite separation at T+33:32 minutes.

This event marked the end of the Ariane 5 program after 27 years of operation. The launch notched the Ariane 5’s flight log up to 117 in total and was also be the 347th launch for the entire Arianespace family of launchers.

Customers riding the last Ariane 5

The final launch is set to improve telecommunications for Germany and France. Germany’s H2SAT communications satellite is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology, implemented by the DLR, and built by German-based space manufacturing company OHB System GmbH.

According to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) eoPortal, “the objective of the mission is to explore and demonstrate new communication technologies in space at a technical and scientific level in order to determine how broadband communications, for example, can result in high data rates for mobile end users.”

The namesake of the satellite is 19th-century German physicist Heinrich Hertz, who discovered electromagnetic waves. The demonstration mission will enable universities and research institutes to conduct in-space experiments that will validate new communication technologies for future use.

OHB won the €310.5 million contract to build the satellite in 2017. Under the contract, the company is responsible for the scientific and technical aspects of the technology, including overseeing project milestones.

The satellite is propelled by the High-Efficiency Multistage Plasma (HEMP) thruster, which will power the course corrections of the satellite. The DLR claims HEMP has a specific impulse five times higher than the “best” chemical thrusters and reduces the overall weight and cost of the satellite. However, the satellite will also accommodate a different heritage electric propulsion system, the SPT-100 Hall-effect thruster as a backup solution.

According to the DLR, the satellite weighs approximately 3,450 kilograms and is about the size of a van. It will orbit the Earth at an approximate altitude of 36,000 kilometers in geostationary orbit for 15 years.

Also launching on the Ariane 5 was the second installment of France’s Syracuse 4 program (formerly the ComSat NG program), the Syracuse 4B. Orbiting hand-in-hand with the Syracuse 4A which launched in October 2021, Syracuse 4B will aid France’s “uninterrupted communications capability” through the next-gen telecommunications satellites, according to the French space agency, CNES.

The Syracuse 4 satellite duo will replace Syracuse 3A and 3B, which were launched in 2005 and 2006. The French Defence Procurement Agency (DGA) contracted Thales Alenia Space to develop Syracuse 4A and Airbus Defence and Space for Syracuse 4B. The Germany-based aerospace manufacturer was tasked with building the satellite upon its Eurostar 3000EOR (Electric Orbit Raising) spacecraft bus.

Airbus is also in charge of the ground station that will monitor and communicate with the satellite.

“Relay capabilities of the two Syracuse IV satellites respond to the increased data transmission needed for digitalisation of the battlefield,” said Airbus Defence and Space. “These Earth-orbiting platforms also will provide long-distance capacity to new categories of users, such as drones and armoured vehicles, as well as aircraft operated by the French Air and Space Force and the Navy. Operating in the X- and Ka-bands, the satellites offer increased performance in terms of communications capacity, flexibility and resistance to jamming, thereby meeting the future needs of armed forces.”

The satellite has been developed with several new innovations, such as new main antennas, larger frequency bands, and an anti-jamming system to increase communication capacity.

The Syracuse 4 satellites are intended to orbit Earth for 15 years and will be joined by a third Syracuse 4C system in the future.

27 years of the Ariane 5

The Ariane 5 is a heavy-lift rocket built by ArianeGroup and operated by its subsidiary, Arianespace. The two-stage vehicle was developed for ESA’s launch program and its first launch took place on June 4, 1996, dubbed flight V88. While the launch failed after the rocket veered off its flight path about 40 seconds following lift-off, the vehicle has since built up a 96% success rate and is known as the reliable workhorse of the European space industry.

First flight for the Ariane 5 in 1996. (Credit: ESA)

The vehicle was a completely new version of Ariane compared to its four predecessors and was “developed from scratch”, ESA says. After the success of the Ariane 4, which flew from 1988 until 2003, the growth of space applications called for a bigger rocket.

“It all started with the telecom revolution, which happened in the second half of the 80s,” Rüedeger Albat, the Ariane 5 program manager told NSF. “For the first time in history, communication was really cheap, and television was becoming direct. All these needed transport possibilities and this was Ariane 1, 2, 3, and 4 at the beginning. This business grew incredibly fast in terms of cadence, but also in terms of weight of the satellites, [so] something bigger was tremendously needed.”

“So, [Ariane] 5 was simply Ariane 4 with double payload,” continued Albat.

The Ariane 5 program was officially approved at the 1987 Ministerial conference, with the hope that it would maintain Europe’s competitive edge in expendable launchers and carry CNES and ESA’s proposed human-rated Hermes spaceplane, which eventually got canceled.

The rocket had several versions, including the Ariane 5G, Ariane 5G+, Ariane 5GS, and Ariane 5 ES. However, the Ariane 5 ECA (Evolved Cryogenic, model A) became the only operational configuration from 2019 onwards. The Ariane 5 ECA has increased payload capacity thanks to multiple upgrades. For example, its EAP boosters carry 10% more propellant with an upgraded nozzle that is cheaper to produce and the famous Vulcain 2 engine has several performance enhancements.

The Ariane 4’s largest launcher, the 44L, had a maximum payload mass to GTO of up to 4.7 tonnes, whereas the Ariane 5 ECA could carry a maximum payload mass of 11 tonnes into the same orbit.

Closing the program, the Ariane 5 ECA flew 83 launches since its first successful flight in 2005, which followed three years after its failed maiden flight in 2002. The Ariane 5’s busiest launch years were 2009, 2012, and 2016 – each featuring seven flights in total.

Ariane 5 launches from 1996 to 2023. (Credit: ESA)

Rüedeger Albat described the Ariane 5 as the “very precise Swiss Knife” of the European launch industry. “It can do a lot of interesting missions,” he said. The Ariane 5 launched several high-profile missions into space, including a dozen Galileo satellites, the Rosetta mission — which was the first to rendezvous with a comet — the James Webb Space Telescope, and most recently the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) spacecraft.

“The second thing which is very important and very special for Ariane 5 in my view, is the precision which comes from a lot of thorough exploitation,” Albat said. “Each flight is really exploited in the most favorable way… and this allows you to save a lot of lifetime for precious payloads.”

Not without its struggles

While its success rate is slightly lower than its predecessor, the Ariane 5 began a new era for launch in Europe. It not only operated the longest, but also cemented Europe’s ability to access space, furthered the continent’s confidence in its capabilities, and embodied the reliability of the Ariane program.

But the success of the Ariane 5 came after rocky origins.

In an ESA-led paper from 2000 that explored the history of the European space industry, it was clear that France was unsure about the Ariane program from the beginning. The French Ministry of Finance believed it would be unsuccessful due to the arrival of the Shuttle and attempted to terminate the program altogether.

However, after much push and pull, the successful launch of the Ariane 1 on Christmas Eve in 1979 proved otherwise. The paper claimed that it restored Europe’s “self-confidence in their capacity to manage large technological projects, and reassure politicians and industrialists that access to space for European technologies was guaranteed.”

The Ariane 1 made Europe the third actor to have independent access to space after the United States and the USSR.

Further, ESA claimed that the launch “inaugurated a new era in the balance of power in the international space arena,” and “broke the United States’ hegemony in the Western world over space transportation systems and created the foundations for a more equilibrated collaborative effort between America and Europe.”

Albat also claimed that there was a similar reluctance when he started on the Ariane 5 program in the late 80s. Even by the fifth iteration, European nations were hard to convince, and one of ESA’s roles was to persuade member states that the newer vehicle was worth their money.

“It’s always tough at the beginning,” Albat said. “In space, [we] love proven concepts, and when we started with Ariane 5, we had a wonderful Ariane 4, and all our partners asked us why we are throwing away Ariane 4… But we did it, and it was hard to do it, but we had something better on our hands.”

Albat said he saw a similar response to the upcoming Ariane 6. However, after almost ten years of development, the rocket is on its way to attempting its first flight. The successor, which has an updated Vulcain 2.1 engine for the lower stage, a new Vinci engine for the upper stage, and offers the option of two or four P120C strap-on boosters, likely won’t launch in 2023 due to further delays — but its entry into the market will be significant for Europe.

Artist illustration of Ariane 6 with four boosters. (Credit: ESA)

The Ariane 6 has been controversial for its lengthy delays and the lack of technological advancements like reusability, and even both the Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël and Albat assert it will not operate as long as the Ariane 5. However, Albat has confidence in the rocket’s ability to increase launch capacity within Europe.

“Ariane 6 fits well with today’s specific European launch needs: the first three production years are already sold out,” Albat said. “Also, Ariane 6 will be a central tool for Europe to remain a main player in international cooperation, at equal footage with other space-faring nations.”

“Re-usability, combined with sustainable green technologies, is also under preparation in Europe: big demonstrators [such] as Prometheus (re-usable green high thrust liquid propulsion) or Themis (big re-usable demonstrator maturing technologies for reusable main stages or reusable liquid boosters) will bring results in the next years and will be available for future upgrades or new vehicles,” Albat continued.

(Lead image: Ariane 5 launches for a final time from French Guiana. Credit: Arianespace)

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