Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket has completed its 100th mission. Tuesday’s flight saw it lift two big satellites into orbit from its operating base in French Guiana.
Conceived originally to launch a European space shuttle, the rocket was adapted instead to put up the heaviest telecommunications spacecraft – a market it dominated for many years.
But the emergence of cheaper US rockets means the Ariane 5 must soon give way to a more competitive successor.
To be called, predictably, Ariane 6 – this vehicle should make its debut in mid-2020.
A backorder of Ariane 5s ensures the old workhorse will continue to fly for some time yet, however.
Two of its remaining missions include sending Europe’s BepiColombo probe to Mercury next month, and putting up the $10bn James Webb Space Telescope – the follow-on to Hubble – in 2021.
“Ariane 5 has been a great success, and it’s not over; we still have four or five years left with this product,” said Alain Charmeau, who runs the rocket manufacturer ArianeGroup.
Tuesday’s telecoms “passengers” tipped the scales at a combined weight of 10 tonnes. Ariane placed them on a path that will eventually take them up to a position some 36,000km above the Earth.
From this vantage point, the Horizons 3e spacecraft will be able to deliver connectivity services across the Asia-Pacific region, and the Azerspace-2/Intelsat 38 platform will be able to do the same over Africa, Europe and Central Asia.
What is the record of the Ariane 5?
The Ariane 5 had a false start to its career when it broke up 37 seconds after leaving the Kourou launch pad on its debut flight in June 1996. The failure was put down to an error in control software.
Where’s the competition coming from?
Europe’s past dominance is been eroded by SpaceX, the California manufacturer, which can build and sell its Falcon vehicles on the commercial market at a price that substantially undercuts Ariane.
And SpaceX promises to drop its costs still further as it routinely flies rockets that are reusable.
What is the future for Ariane?
Ariane’s response is the introduction of a launcher that is simpler to build and operate, and which maximises the use of next-generation fabrication techniques, such as 3D printing.
This Ariane 6 rocket is well along its development path, with all its engines currently being tested.
It will still be a one-flight-only, expendable rocket; it will not be reusable. But the European Space Agency, which has overseen the design process, hopes the 40-50% reduction in unit cost will keep Ariane in a competitive position.
ArianeGroup is looking for firmer guarantees from European governments that they will use Ariane 6 for all their institutional payloads.
This would help close the business case for Ariane 6, said Mr Charmeau.
“It’s good to have many people supporting Ariane 6, but there is a nuance between ‘support’ and ‘commitment’; they are not the same. And if I can get the commitment, I would be extremely happy.”