ESA will have to lean on the USA for launches until Ariane 6 comes online

  • Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket will embark on its final mission late on Wednesday evening.
  • This launch will also leave Europe without space launch capabilities until Ariane 6 comes online, later this year.
  • The Ariane 5 rocket has been responsible for ferrying satellites and the likes of the James Webb Space Telescope into space.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is currently rocketless. Technically, it has a rocket in production and one on the tarmac, but any launches that need to happen after today and until the completion of Ariane 6, will need to be outsourced.

On Wednesday, the ESA will launch the Ariane 5 rocket for the last time in its nearly 30 year life span. The launch of Flight VA261 is scheduled to happen at midnight on Wednesday evening. On its last flight, the Ariane 5 rocket will ferry two payloads to space including an experimental communications satellite for Germany and the French communications satellite Syracuse 4b.

Over its lifespan, Ariane 5 has had a launch success rate of 95 percent with 111 of 116 successful. The first launch took place in 1996 and while there were many failures, since then the rocket has been pushing heavy objects into deep space, including the James Webb Space Telescope.

Ariane 6 will have two versions depending on the required performance. Ariane 62 will have two strap-on boosters and Ariane 64 will have four. Ariane 62 will be capable of lifting 4 500kg into geostationary transfer orbit or 10 300kg into low Earth orbit while 64 can lift 11 500kg and 20 6600kg into geostationary transfer and low-Earth orbit respectively.

When exactly Ariane 6 will be ready for work is unclear. As The Register reports, the rocket isn’t expected to be ready before the end of the year and further delays could be on the cards.

As such, the ESA is going to have to lean on the likes of SpaceX to meet its launch needs. While this isn’t ideal, there are hopes that this lack of independent access to space will inspire an awakening in Europe.

“My hope, quite possibly my biggest aspiration for Europe, is that this temporary lack of access to space, combined with this moment of novel opportunities in exploration and a rapidly evolving space economy, will be the impetus for a deep reflection of Europe’s modus operandi, leading to a transformation of our overall space ecosystem. But also, that the generally accepted position that Europe cannot again lose out on key strategic domains as we did a few decades ago on IT or quantum computing inspires hope and that this time, Europe will be ready to act – and to deliver,” Director General of ESA, Josef Aschbacher said in a social media post in May.

The director acknowledges that SpaceX has changed the face of space exploration given that the firm is able to reuse its rockets. This is going to get worse for other firms once Starship stops performing a rapid unscheduled disassembly when it launches with Aschbacher saying the cost of launching will be reduced by a factor of 10.

“Europe, on the other hand, finds itself today in an acute launcher crisis with a (albeit temporary) gap in its own access to space and no real launcher vision beyond 2030. Fortunately for us, true crisis forces us to candidly reflect on the causes and decisions that brought us here, draw the subsequent and necessary painful lessons, and come out stronger than before. More resilient, more clever, more visionary,” adds the ESA director general.

For those who want to tune in for Ariane 5’s final flight, you can head to ESA’s website for live coverage that starts 30 minutes for the launch at midnight.

[Image – ESA: S. Corvaja]


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