Since the maiden launch of Ariane 1 in 1979, Europe has been able to rely on a family of powerful launchers to assure its independent access to space. The version currently in service is Ariane 5, which made its first flight in 1996.
Proposed by CNES and initiated in 1973 by the European Space Agency (ESA), the Ariane programme today gives Europe the freedom to orbit satellites without relying on other space powers. Since the maiden launch of Ariane 1 on 24 December 1979 from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, a series of increasingly powerful vehicles have succeeded one another: Ariane 2 in 1986, Ariane 3 in 1984 and Ariane 4 in 1988. Ariane 5, the version of the launcher currently operated by Arianespace, flew for the first time in 1996. Its strong point is a total lift capacity of up to 9.5 tonnes into geostationary transfer orbit, giving it the ability to perform dual launches. Ariane 5 today accounts for half of all geostationary satellite launches and is marketed by Arianespace, a firm created in 1980 at CNES’s behest.
An Ariane 5 launcher is composed of several elements. The lower part of the launcher composite comprises a central core with a Vulcain engine and two solid rocket boosters on either side that deliver most of the thrust at lift-off. The upper part consists of the vehicle equipment bay or VEB (the launcher’s ‘brain’), an upper stage to impart the extra velocity required to inject the payload into orbit, and the fairing that houses and protects the payload. Ariane 5 is set to be replaced in 2021 by Ariane 6, a medium- and heavy-lift launcher.