December 2, 2014

Ariane 4 - A challenge for spacefaring Europe

Meeting market requirements

At the start of the 1980s, the Ariane family’s prospects did not look good. In 1981, the reusable U.S. Space Shuttle enjoyed its first successes, offering much greater carrying capacity than Ariane 1 and Ariane 3. To sell Ariane services, a launcher superior to its immediate competitors—Atlas and Delta—was needed.

 At the same time, demand from the launch services market was becoming more diversified as satellites started to get larger. This rapid shift motivated the decision to build a new launcher tailored to market needs while drawing on the heritage of previous Ariane launchers.

First flight of Ariane 4 on 15 June 1988. Credits: CNES/ESA/Arianespace.

The Ariane 4 programme proposed by CNES received French government approval in 1981 and ESA followed suit the following year. Some 60 companies from 11 European nations were involved in the project, with France providing 52% of the funding. As prime contractor, CNES also had responsibility for the programme’s development and technical oversight.

Ariane 4’s advantages

The launcher entered service on 15 June 1988 with ambitious goals, leveraging the experience gained from its predecessors.

Ariane 4’s main discriminating factor was its modularity, with 6 variants to accommodate single or dual launches for a broad range of satellites weighing 2 to 4.5 tonnes. The 6 variants were distinguished by the number and type of boosters—liquid or solid—used, an original feature that gave the launcher a lot of flexibility.

5 of the 6 variants of Ariane 4. Credits: ESA.

The 6 variants of Ariane 4

  Ariane 40    Ariane 42 P     Ariane 44 P    Ariane 42 L     Ariane 44 L      Ariane 44 LP   
 --- 2 PAP * 4 PAP **2 PAL 4 PAL  2 PAP - 2 PAL
 Lift capacity to geostationary transfer orbit
 2,100 kg 2,930 kg 3,460 kg 3,480 kg4,220 kg 4,720 kg
 * PAP : Propulseur d'Appoint à Poudre (solid rocket booster)
** PAL : Propulseur d'Appoint à Liquide (liquid rocket booster)


An undeniable success

In the space of a few years, Ariane 4 captured nearly 60% of the commercial launch services market, lofting payloads for both European and international customers.

The keys to the launcher’s success were its exceptional flexibility allied to a slick organization. From March 1995, Ariane 4 accomplished 73 straight launches, a world record for a commercial launcher.