The Ariane 1 launcher made its maiden space flight on Christmas Eve, 1979. In 30 years, Arianespace, the organization set up to manage it as a commercial venture, has established the Ariane family of launchers as the world's largest provider of commercial launch services. The December launch of an Ariane 5 GS with a French military payoad, the seventh Ariane launch of 2009, salutes the anniversary, which invites a look at what's next for the launcher.
The replacement for the Ariane rocket after 2020 will likely be smaller and less expensive to meet the needs of lighter European Space Agency missions, according to the head of the agency's launcher program. "The fact that we want launchers that serve our institutional missions means that we need a smaller launcher than Ariane 5, it being understood that Ariane 5 could serve the space station with ATV and launch exploration missions," said Antonio Fabrizi, ESA's director of launchers, told Spaceflight Now recently. Officials expect decisions on both the evolution of Ariane 5 and a future replacement in 2011. Spaceflight Now notes that Ariane 5's prognosis may largely depend on policy decisions in the United States, especially on exploration and human spaceflight topics now being reviewed by leaders at NASA and in the White House. The French space agency, Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES), which has managed the launcher's development as a means of independent access to space for the European Space Agency (ESA) and as a launcher for commercial payloads, conducted the first launch in 1979. Arianespace was set up in 1980. It now has 23 shareholders from 10 European countries, including CNES. According to an Encyclopedia Britannica profile, Ariane 1 was 164-feet tall and had a thrust at liftoff of 550,000 pounds, which allowed it to launch an 4,070-pound satellite into geostationary orbit. The first four generations of Ariane shared the same basic design but achieved increased performance and flexibility through modifications of that design; by the end of its 15-year-long career, Ariane 4 had achieved over 97 percent reliability. In 1985 the ESA decided to develop the more powerful Ariane 5 launcher with a totally new design based on a cryogenically fueled first stage, flanked by two large solid-fuel boosters. Its first test launch, in June 1996, failed, but in subsequent years it has achieved 89 per cent reliability. The Ariane 5 ECA version can launch two satellites with a combined weight of 21,000 pounds into orbit. Ariane payloads include Giotto, the probe to Halley's Comet; Hipparcos, the stellar distance-measuring satellite; Rosetta, a comet rendezvous mission; and Envisat, a large Earth-observing satellite. The seventh launch of 2009 in December, according to Arianespace, makes it the busiest mission year with Ariane 5 since the heavy-lift vehicle's commercial service introduction in 1999. Nov/09
Date written/update: 2009-12-24