December 2, 2014

Developmental launchers: Ariane 1 to 3

The first Ariane launcher thundered off the launch pad on 24 December 1979. For the first time in the history of space, a heavy-lift 3-stage launcher capable of placing satellites of nearly 1 tonne into geostationary orbit was successfully sent aloft.

Ariane 1 - First of the line

Ariane 1 makes its maiden launch on 24 December 1979. Credits: CNES/ESA, 1979.

The launcher’s qualification programme comprised 4 flight tests. The 2nd flight, in 1980, ended in failure and it took nearly a year of changes, analysis and checks to determine the root causes. The next two flights in 1981 were a success and Europe was able to declare its launcher operational at the end of that year.

Ariane 1 performed 11 launches in all, the last two in 1985 carrying the Giotto probe and the SPOT 1 satellite.

Ariane 2 and 3 boost performance

As early as 1976, CNES put forward proposals to ESA to enhance the performance of its launcher. This would be achieved by:

  • Increasing thrust and engine burn time
  • Adding solid-propellant boosters to give the launcher more lift capacity
  • Providing more space for payloads under the fairing and the ability to carry 2 satellites on the same flight

These changes gave birth to Ariane 2 and Ariane 3. The biggest change for Ariane 3 was the addition of 2 solid-propellant boosters strapped onto the launcher’s 1st stage.

Ariane 2 (left) and Ariane 3 (right) on the launch pad. Credits: CNES.

ESA adopted the programme on 3 July 1980, with France—as for Ariane 1—providing roughly two-thirds of funding. ESA took on oversight responsibility for the programme and assigned project execution to CNES.

As for Ariane 1, launcher construction involved over 100 European firms, among them Aerospatiale, Matra and Air Liquide, with work shared between participating member states in proportion to their funding contributions.

Ariane 3 made its maiden flight on 4 August 1984, successfully orbiting the ECS 2 and Telecom 1A satellites. The last flight took place on 12 July 1989, bringing to an end a series of 6 Ariane 2 and 11 Ariane 3 launches.

Ariane 1  to Ariane 3. Credits: CNES.