History of Rockets: Ariane

Ethan Wong

March 17, 2023

The Europa rocket was brought together by three nations in an attempt to mirror the Blue Streak missile developed by Great Britain in the 1960s, but mostly for the transportation of European telecommunication satellites. France, Britain, and Germany all worked together in the European Launcher Development Organization (ELDO), the predecessor of the current European Space Agency (ESA). The three countries envisioned a rocket brought together with a Blue Streak first stage, a Coralie second stage contributed by France, and an upper stage built by the Germans. It all seems like an efficient and excellent idea until the test launches turn into constant malfunctions and failures. Eventually, all three nations disbanded. However, Germany, France, and Britain reunited in 1975, introducing the ESA to build a rocket: Ariane.

The maiden flight of Ariane 1 took place in December 1979. This European rocket was originally scheduled for the 15th to carry test payloads, yet the computer shut down the engines of the rocket after they had been ignited because it thought there was a problem. On the 23rd, the weather was terrible. On December 24th, 1979, the first flight was successful. Ariane 1 had eleven flights with 2 failures, and after some time, launched the Giotto spacecraft into geostationary orbit to study Halley’s comet (the first geostationary launch was the 3rd attempt). 

Ariane 2 and Ariane 3 were then worked on simultaneously, yet Ariane 3 launched first on August 4th, 1984. Ariane 2 followed, launching on May 31st, 1986. Both of these rockets were improved and redesigned based on the Ariane 1 model. One improvement that was proposed involved stretching the payload capacity to hold 2 spacecraft that could be launched into geostationary orbit. This was brought up because of the Delta and Atlas-Centaur which both took up most of the market for geostationary launches, despite the Atlas-Centaur costing much more for a launch while Delta was cheaper than Ariane. Ariane 3 was equipped with two solid propellant boosters on either side for extra thrust and both rockets had their upper stage extended to fit up to 10 tons of propellant. Despite these changes, Ariane 2 and 3 only launched a combined 17 times and this is where Ariane 4 became the replacement. Both Ariane 2 and 3 performed their final launches in 1989.

Ariane 4 made several changes. One massive change was the flexibility the rocket had with its strap-on rocket boosters which could either be solid-fuel or liquid fuel, creating a resourceful and versatile rocket. Additionally, the amount of propellant in the first stage was expanded. This rocket launched 116 times with only 3 failures until February of 2033 when it officially retired. The current Ariane 5 has 106 launches and 5 failures and will continue being one of the leading commercial satellite launchers until Ariane 6 takes over. The Ariane 5 contains a completely different design than all the other Ariane rockets with a center core stage with a Vulcan engine and 2 solid rocket motors on the sides. Unlike other rockets today, Ariane 5 doesn’t reuse their solid rocket boosters after they are deployed from the rest of the vehicle during flight. The upper stage of the rocket is powered by an EPS engine which essentially uses monomethylhydrazine (MMH) and nitrogen tetroxide. The Ariane 5 rocket was developed into several different variants over the years: Ariane 5G, Ariane 5G+, Ariane 5GS, Ariane 5ECA, and Ariane 5ES, and famously launched the James Webb Telescope in 2021. There are still a lot of expectations and high hopes for this rocket, especially with Ariane 6’s maiden flight expected this year–allowing markets to send up their payloads on one of the most reliable launch vehicles today.