Space Commerce

The Last Ariane 5 Launch Was Apparently Perfect

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
July 5, 2023
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The Last Ariane 5 Launch Was Apparently Perfect
Ariane 5

Note: On 5 July 2023 editor Keith Cowing spoke with Deutsche Welle TV about the last flight of the Ariane 5 launch vehicle and its successor, the Ariane 6. [audio]

Flight VA261 lifted off from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana at 22:00 UTC 5 July 2023/00:00 6 July CEST (19:00 local time). This mission lasted about 33 minutes from lift-off to release of final payload.

Total payload mass at liftoff was about 7700 kg – 7000 kg for the two satellites, and the rest for payload adapters and carrying structures.

The flight was the 117th outing for Ariane 5, a series which began in 1996 and carried to space numerous commercial and European institutional missions. Notable payloads include ESA’s comet-chasing Rosetta, a dozen of Europe’s Galileo navigation satellites – orbited with just three launches – and the James Webb Space Telescope. Ariane 5’s next-to-last lift-off launched ESA’s Juice mission to Jupiter.

This heavy launcher more than doubled the mass-to-orbit capacity of its predecessor, Ariane 4, which flew from 1988 until 2003 as a favourite of the telecommunications industry with its need to put large payloads into very high geosynchronous orbits. 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.

Where Ariane 1, 2 and 3 (1979-1989) and Ariane 4 (1988-2003) were closely related, the larger and more powerful Ariane 5 was developed essentially as an all-new launch system. From 1985, ESA member states initiated this programme with a view to participating in the International Space Station and launching Hermes, a European crewed spaceplane concept. The Hermes project was later abandoned, though Ariane 5’s legacy includes having delivered to the ISS Europe’s series of five Automated Transfer Vehicle resupply spacecraft.

Ariane 5 development saw several iterations, culminating in the ECA variant which flew most missions and launched exclusively since 2019.

The development of the Ariane series of launch vehicles is an expression of Europe’s position, dating to the 1960s, that participation in the new space age demanded an independent launch capability. Several European countries thus joined forces to develop a launch vehicle. 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.

That spirit of co-operation ultimately delivered Ariane 5 and the smaller Vega series of launch vehicles. ESA continues this work with its Member States and industrial partners to meet new market realities with Ariane 6, the newest launch vehicle in the Ariane family.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.