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Ariane Launch Vehicle Overview – The Past, the Present and the Future

written by: johnsinit•edited by: RC Davison•updated: 9/15/2009

The Ariane series of vehicles has become one of the world’s most prominent series of space launch vehicles, with a reputation for excellent customer service and relative affordability. Arianespace, the French company that developed the vehicles, has had many successes. Read more below

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    The Need

    The line of Ariane launch vehicles traces its beginnings back to the 1970s, when the use of American launch vehicles entailed more restrictions than Europeans wanted. France in particular was keen on pursuing autonomy in the business of satellite launches. The European Space Agency was created in 1973 and began work in earnest in 1975. Twelve member countries were to cooperate on space and rocket development projects, with each major country taking on a lead role. Germany wanted to develop a human-operated space lab, Britain wanted a maritime communications satellite, and France wanted to build a launch vehicle.

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    French Rocket

    France’s new rocket would be named Ariane, to be built by a new space company called Arianespace. In fact, Arianespace became the first commercial space launch company. The Ariane-1 was fairly simple: it used a common propellant made of nitrogen tetroxide (N2O4) and unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine (UDMH) for the first and second stages. On the third stage, the Ariane-1 used liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid hydrogen as the oxidizer and fuel respectively. This vehicle could lift 1,700 kg into a geostationary transfer orbit, from which a satellite would go into a geostationary orbit.

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    Images of Ariane Launch Vehicles

    Ariane FamilyAriane 5 SchematicsAriane 5 Launch
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    The First Launch

    On Christmas Eve in 1979, France launched the first Ariane-1 at its launch site in French Guyana, located close to the equator on the eastern coast of South America. This launch site had two main benefits: being close to the equator, the rocket could get a bigger boost from Earth’s rotation than it could farther north or south, and payloads could be launched eastward over the ocean with negligible danger of it falling on land.

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    Continuous Successes

    The Ariane-2 was put into service in 1983, and the Ariane-3 was used starting in 1984. The Ariane-3 used two solid rocket boosters strapped to its liquid rocket main vehicle. In 1989 Ariane-4 went into service. This vehicle could accommodate up to four additional booster rockets. Since the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the U.S. had stopped allowing commercial satellites to fly on the Space Shuttle. This had the effect of driving customers to Arianespace, which dominated its sector of the commercial launch market without significant competition until well into the 1990s.

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    Ariane-5 and Hermes

    But even as the Ariane-4 was being prepared for service, Arianespace knew they needed a larger rocket to launch bigger payloads. They were going to simply upgrade the Ariane-4 with a beefed-up upper stage. However, the French wanted to develop an independent European version of the Space Shuttle for human spaceflight. It would be called Hermes, and would carry human payload to orbit for research purposes. By 1985 the French enlisted the rest of the European Space Agency to cooperate on the program. Once the ESA approved Hermes, it was decided that the Ariane-5 needed to be much larger than previously thought to be up to the task.

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    Hermes - Out, Ariane 5 - In

    Plans for Hermes changed radically, many times over. Changes to the payload bay, crew cabin, docking tunnel, and airlock were incorporated, as was an emergency escape hatch. These changes had profound effects on the overall weight of the Hermes. Finally, after spending the equivalent of $2 billion with no space hardware to show for it, the ESA cancelled Hermes.

    Nevertheless, the Ariane-5 development went on. Arianespace knew that communications satellites would increase in size, and that being the case, the Ariane-4, which was designed to launch two satellites at the same time, would become inadequate. The Ariane-5 not only had a bigger core stage, it also had two large solid rocket boosters – a configuration similar to the American Titan III and IV.

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    Failure and Success

    The first Ariane-5 launch in 1996 was a failure, destroying four space physics satellites in the process. The problem was later diagnosed as a software mistake that resulted from using much of the Ariane-4 software in the Ariane-5, but without accounting for the Ariane-5’s different acceleration characteristics. But the Ariane-5 entered service for good in 1997. It did experience a failure on its 10th launch in 2001, but otherwise joined the Titan IV, the H-IIA from Japan, and the Russian Proton as one of the world’s most powerful rockets.

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    Future and Competition

    Since 2003, the Ariane-5 has been upgraded for better reliability and lift capacity, and is expected to remain one of the world’s principal launch vehicles well into the future. It has to be noted though, that many countries are developing launch vehicles - so vast competition is expected. The Chinese Long March; Atlas, Delta and Falcon-9 of the US; GSLV III and H-II manufactured in India and Japan respectively, and the mighty Russian Soyuz-2 - they are all excellent and reliable mid-heavy launch rockets that will compete with Ariane-5.