Watch Europe’s workhorse Ariane 5 rocket launch for the final time

After 27 years of outstanding service, Europe’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket launched for the final time on Wednesday. The workhorse rocket operated by Arianespace performed as reliably as ever as it blasted off from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana at 6 p.m. ET on its 117th flight.

Ariane 5’s final mission was a routine affair, deploying a French military communications satellite and a German communications satellite. Recent flights, however, saw it deploy the much-celebrated James Webb Space Telescope, which is sending scientists fresh data from deep space, and the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) spacecraft, which is on its way to explore Jupiter and its three largest icy moons.

“This 117th and last Ariane 5 mission is emblematic in several respects,” Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace, said in a release. “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, [and] 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.”

The 164-foot-tall (50-meter) Ariane 5 rocket looks similar to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV, with a core booster and two side boosters giving it extra power for more complex deployments involving heavier payloads. A couple of minutes after launch, the two side boosters separate from the core stage, which carries on burning as it lifts the payload to orbit.

In its lifetime, the rocket suffered only two complete failures — one on its maiden flight in 1996 and another in 2002.

Ariane 5’s retirement means that Europe currently has no heavy-lift rocket available. With few options until it deploys the Ariane 6, Europe has to look elsewhere for launch assistance. Just last week, for example, it used SpaceX’s reliable Falcon 9 rocket in a launch from U.S. soil to deploy its Euclid satellite for a mission involving the exploration of dark matter.

Ariane 6 is currently undergoing tests ahead of its maiden flight. It was supposed to launch for the first time in 2020, but delays mean that it won’t get off the ground until later this year at the earliest.

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William Johnson

William J. has a degree in Computer Graphics and is passionate about virtual and augmented reality. He explores the latest in VR and AR technologies, from gaming to industrial applications.