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The last voyage of Ariane 5

On a low loader we drive through Bremen at night. The last upper stage that will travel into space on an Ariane 5 rocket has left the factory premises in Bremen and is now waiting at the port to be shipped to Kourou in French Guiana. The last Ariane 5 will start from there – and an era will come to an end. The 117th launch is scheduled for April 2023 and will be the last.

Ariane 5 is often referred to as Europe's gateway to space. In the tip of the European rocket, in the so-called upper stage, communication satellites usually travel into space. The upper level is, so to speak, the taxi that delivers these satellites exactly where they are supposed to go.

Last start after more than 20 years

Calling Ariane 5 a success story is no stretch, even if the era began with a false launch: The first Ariane 5 lifted off on July 4, 1996, rolled over after 37 seconds and then blew itself up. It was a software bug the problem.

The second start was also a bit bumpy. Although the rocket took off without any problems, it did not deliver the satellite exactly where it was supposed to be. On the third attempt, everything went as planned: On October 21, 1998, an Ariane 5 took off with a space capsule whose suitability was to be tested in space.

Reliable space transporter

From that point on, Ariane 5 began to build its reputation as a reliable space transporter, even if another launch failure followed in 2002. There were five different versions of the Ariane 5, all between 54 and 59 meters high and weighing up to 777 tons. The drive delivers up to 180,000 hp.

Equipped in this way, the rocket has successfully completed many missions: Space telescopes such as Herschel or Planck traveled into space in 2009 with an Ariane 5. In 2021, the James Webb telescope brought them into space. There are also countless communication satellites, but also military surveillance satellites.

The five "Automated Transfer Vehicles" (ATVs) that Ariane 5 brought to the International Space Station (ISS) are certainly special. The ATVs were transport capsules that carried food, water, equipment, oxygen and fuel to the astronauts on the ISS. However, humans have never flown on an Ariane 5.

Satellite for exploring Jupiter's moon

The last "passenger" at the helm of an Ariane 5 will be the JUICE spacecraft. The destination of this probe is Jupiter's moon Ganymede. Research is to be carried out into whether life would be possible there. The lifetime of the Ariane 5, on the other hand, will finally come to an end with the 117th launch.

As with each of its predecessors, the boosters will burn out around two minutes after launch and then blast off. After the work is done, you and the main stage fall back to earth – more precisely into the sea. Eternity awaits the upper stage: when it has delivered the probe in orbit, it will propel itself into the grave with a little push, namely into the so-called graveyard orbit. The Bremen upper stage will continue to orbit there – but without function, above all, without getting in the way of satellites in orbit.

Ariane 6 from autumn 2023

Five follows six – the European joint venture Ariane Group has been developing the Ariane 6 rocket since 2015. The start-up costs should be about halved with this model. For a long time now, not only countries like Russia, the USA, China or India have been building rockets. Private companies, such as Elon Musk's company Space X, also entered the market. With the Falcon 9 rocket, the company has for the first time succeeded in bringing the main stage of a rocket back to earth, i.e. being able to reuse it.

So the competition has grown, and with it the demands on the successor to Ariane 5. If everything goes according to plan, Ariane 6 should take off for the first time in autumn 2023.

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