Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket blasts off for the last time

6 Jul 2023

The Ariane 5 rocket. Image: ESA-CNES-Arianespace/Optique video du CSG/P. Piron

The rocket has been in service since 1996 and has brought numerous important payloads out of Earth’s orbit, such as the Rosetta spacecraft and the James Webb Space Telescope.

Europe’s heavy-lift rocket – Ariane 5 – has completed its long career with a final delivery to Earth’s orbit.

The rocket’s final mission began last night (5 July) and deployed two communication satellites into orbit. This marked the 117th flight for the rocket, which has been in service since 1996 and involved in various commercial and European institutional missions.

The rocket was seen as a significant leap technologically, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The organisation claims it more than doubled the mass-to-orbit capacity of its predecessor, the Ariane 4.

“The larger and more powerful Ariane 5 was developed essentially as an all-new launch system,” the ESA said. “Ariane 5’s capacity enabled it to orbit two large telecommunications satellites on a single launch, or to push very large payloads into deep space.”

The heavy rocket was involved in multiple important missions over the years, with one of its payloads being the comet-striking space voyeur Rosetta. Ariane 5 also launched a dozen navigation satellites for Europe’s Galileo network, which aims to become a global navigation satellite system under civilian control.

Ariane 5 was also used to launch the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful space observatory ever built. This successor to the Hubble Telescope has already taken various incredible images of the cosmos, enhancing our understanding of the universe.

The Ariane series of launch vehicles have their origins in an earlier project in the 1960s and were developed on the belief that “the new space age demanded an independent launch capability” for Europe. The history of these endeavours predate the ESA itself.

“Several European countries thus joined forces to develop a launch vehicle,” the ESA said. “This project, called Europa, was ultimately unsuccessful but in 1975 the European Launcher Development Organisation created to oversee it was merged with the European Space Research Organisation to create ESA, which initiated the Ariane programme.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic