Ariane 5, Europe’s longest-serving heavy-lift rocket, completed its final mission on 5 July. The rocket has played a pivotal role in the continent’s space access for nearly three decades.

Ariane 5’s retirement represents the launch of over 230 satellites throughout its operational years, with a combined weight of nearly 1,000 tonnes. This substantial contribution to the deployment of satellites for various purposes, including communication, Earth observation, and exploration, highlights the critical role played by Ariane 5 in advancing Europe’s presence in space.

Among the notable missions accomplished by Ariane 5 are the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, Rosetta in 2004 (which successfully rendezvoused with a comet), Envisat in 2002 (one of the largest Earth observation satellites), the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) in 2008 (which resupplied the International Space Station), and the upcoming Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) mission planned for 2023.

The final mission took place at the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana, a location synonymous with Europe’s space activities. The launch site serves as a strategic hub for European space missions. It played a crucial role in the successful deployment of numerous satellites over the years.

The launch took place at 2200 GMT.

The mission carried a French defence satellite, Syracuse 4B, designed to provide secure military communications. It also carried a German demonstration spacecraft, Heinrich Hertz, which aims to test new technologies for future telecommunications satellites.

Originally conceptualised in the 1980s to launch an astronaut shuttle called Hermes, the plan was ultimately abandoned due to cost constraints. Subsequently, the Ariane 5 was repurposed for satellite launches, leading to its transformation into a highly successful heavy-lift rocket for Europe’s space programme.

Ariane 6, the anticipated successor, is still undergoing development and testing. Recent reports suggest that the inauguration might face delays. The high costs associated with Ariane 5 production prompted the development of an improved European heavy-lift rocket, Ariane 6.

Previously, Europe relied on Russian Soyuz rockets for satellite launches, but this dependence has now ended. With the retirement of Ariane 5, Europe seeks to establish self-sufficiency in accessing space and reducing reliance on external partners.

Europe’s plans to bolster its launch capabilities suffered a setback when the smaller European rocket, the Vega-C, failed in December, leading to its grounding.

In the absence of a European alternative, European satellites have turned to American launch services, primarily relying on SpaceX Falcon-9 rockets.

On 1 July, the Euclid space telescope was successfully launched into orbit by SpaceX. The Euclid mission, led by the European Space Agency (ESA), aims to study dark matter and dark energy to gain a deeper understanding of the universe.

European Space Agency Director General Dr Josef Aschbacher is concerned about the current launcher crisis in Europe. With the retirement of Ariane 5 and delays in Ariane 6 development, Europe faces a significant challenge in maintaining independent space access. Dr Aschbacher emphasises the urgent need for Europe to accelerate the development and deployment of its next-generation rockets to mitigate external launch services dependence.

However, Dr Aschbacher is confident that Ariane 6, once launched, will achieve similar performance and accuracy.

The forthcoming rocket aims to address cost concerns by targeting a 40% reduction in launch expenses compared to its predecessor, Ariane 5. Despite the cost-saving measures, Ariane 6 will continue to follow an expendable design, necessitating new rocket construction for each mission. This approach contrasts with SpaceX’s reusability capabilities.

European space agencies are actively working on reusability technologies. However, they are not expected to be available until the 2030s. Reusability can significantly reduce launch costs by enabling the recovery and refurbishment of rocket components, thereby enhancing space missions’ cost-effectiveness.

SpaceX Founder Elon Musk continuously pushes the boundaries of rocket technology and cost reduction.