Spaceflight Insider

Ariane 5 rocket bids adieu after 27 years of service

The final launch of the Ariane 5 rocket. Credit: Arianespace

The final launch of the Ariane 5 rocket. Credit: Arianespace

Nearly three decades after its debut launch, Europe’s workhorse Ariane 5 rocket has taken to the skies one last time, carrying a pair of communications satellites bound for geostationary orbit.

The sunset liftoff occurred at 6 p.m. EDT (10:00 UTC) July 5, 2023, from launch pad 3 at Guiana Space Center in the South American country of French Guiana. The rocket’s twin solid rocket boosters ignited several seconds after its main engine to send the 174-foot (53-meter) two-stage rocket toward space and ultimately delivered the German space agency’s experimental Heinrich Hertz satellite and the Syracuse 4b French communications satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit some 34 minutes after launch.

The Ariane 5 rocket's two solid rocket boosters propel the rocket toward space. Credit: Arianespace

The Ariane 5 rocket’s two solid rocket boosters propel the rocket toward space. Credit: Arianespace

“This 117th and last Ariane 5 mission is emblematic in several respects. Ariane 5 has just deployed two telecommunications satellites, Syracuse 4B and Heinrich-Hertz-Satellit, for France and Germany, the first two contributors to the Ariane program,” Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace, said in a company 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.”

Dubbed mission VA261, this was the 117th flight of an Ariane 5 rocket, the first occurring in 1996. Throughout those 27 years, the Arianespace-built rocket had three partial failures and two total failures, including its very first launch.

The first launch occurred on June 4, 1996, to deliver the Cluster spacecraft into space for the European Space Agency. Unfortunately, a computer malfunction caused the rocket to abruptly veer off course and explode seconds after leaving the pad.

It would be nearly a year and a half later for the second Ariane 5 to take flight, which resulted in a partial failure. Its third launch in October 1998 was the first to be completely successful. The 10th flight of the rocket was also deemed a partial failure as its upper stage underperformed.

The only other complete failure was in December 2002 when the Ariane 5’s first stage engine failed, causing the rocket to be destroyed by the range safety officer.

Between the 2002 failure and the rocket’s final launch in 2023, Ariane 5 flew 103 times with only a partial failure in 2018 causing satellites to be placed in incorrect orbits.

Among the more than 200 satellites and spacecraft orbited by the Ariane 5 include five Automated Transfer Vehicles to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, the European BepiColombo mission to Mercury in 2018 and the $10-billion James Webb Space Telescope on Christmas Day in 2021.

Over the decades, several variants of the Ariane 5 rocket have flown. The original “G” version flew 17 times. The “G+” version flew three times in 2004. Between 2005 and 2009 a “GS” variant flew with no failures.

The ECA, which is the variant used for VA261, came into service in 2002 and was the most-flown version, having been utilized 84 times. This version was able to send up to 23,953 pounds (10,865 kilograms) into a geostationary transfer orbit.

Technicians apply decals on the final Ariane 5's payload fairing. Credit: Arianespace

Technicians apply decals on the final Ariane 5’s payload fairing. Credit: Arianespace

Finally, an “ES” version flew eight times between 2008 and 2018. It launched all five Automated Transfer Vehicles to the ISS in low Earth orbit as well as three launches with four Galileo navigation satellites each directly into a medium Earth orbit. The Ariane 5ES had the ability to send up to 44,000 pounds (20,000 kilograms) into a low Earth orbit.

“Ariane 5 is now taking its place in the annals of global space history,” said Martin Sion, the CEO of ArianeGroup, the parent company of Arianespace. “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. Together we are now taking up the challenge of Ariane 6, the beneficiary of the experience acquired with Ariane 5. It will be able to evolve and play a full role in guaranteeing independent, sustainable access to space for Europe, in a context of major strategic, economic and environmental challenges, to meet the needs of its institutional and commercial customers.”

With the final launch, Europe loses the ability to independently send heavy payloads into space until Ariane 6 comes online, which is not expected until at least the fourth quarter of this year.

Ariane 6 has been in development since the early 2010s. At 207 feet (63 meters) tall, the two-stage rocket will come in two versions “62” with two solid rocket boosters and “64” with four solid rocket boosters. The “64” variant is expected to be able to take as much as 47,730 pounds (21,650 kilograms) into low Earth orbit and 25,400 pounds (11,500 kilograms) into geostationary transfer orbit.

It was supposed to be flying as early as 2020 with several years of overlap between it and Ariane 5. However, development delays have caused its maiden flight to be delayed several times.

The first Ariane 6 will be in the “62” variant and send multiple rideshare payloads into a low Earth orbit after launching from launch pad 4.

The Ariane 6 rocket on its launch pad for tests. Credit: Arianespace

The Ariane 6 rocket on its launch pad for tests. Credit: Arianespace

Video courtesy of Arianespace


Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

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