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Ariane 5

In early 1996 the long-awaited Ariane 5 launch vehicle will begin flight operations in an effort to accommodate larger GEO spacecraft as well as to permit the launch of large man related spacecraft into LEO. Ariane 5 will be somewhat shorter but much broader than its predecessor. The basic launch vehicle consists of a large, liquid-propellant central stage surrounded by two large, solid propellant boosters. The central stage will be powered by a single Vulcain engine developed by SEP and burning liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen. The booster stages (P230) are the vehicles analogous to the boosters used by the US STS French and are designed to be recovered from the Atlantic Ocean and refurbished. This configuration was sized to place the now-cancelled 22-metric-ton Hermes spaceplane into a low altitude transfer orbit: 100 km by 460 km, 28.50 degree inclination (References 2, 15-22).

For GTO or other LEO missions, a small upper stage (L9, formerly L7) burning nitrogen tetroxide and monomethylhydrazine through a single Aestus engine will be employed. Payload capacity for this type of mission varies from 5.1 to 6.8 metric tons depending upon the number of payloads carried. Multiple payload housing systems called SPELTRA (Struck Porteuse Externe de Lancements Triples Ariane) can accommodate two or three major satellites (References 23-24). The L9 stage was also designed to place the unmanned Columbus module into LEO.

The principal contractors for Ariane 5 are Aerospatiale (central stage), SEP (Vulcain engine), Europropulsion and Aerospatiale (booster stage and engine), and DASA/ERN0 (upper stage). The first hot test of a reinforced P230 solid booster took place on 16 February 1993, followed by a flight-design booster test on 25 June 1993. Difficulties with the Vulcain engine were resolved in 1993-1994, and the first phase of the development program was completed in late 1994 (References 25-27). Under an ESA contract the Russian Scientific Research Institute for Parachute Making is designing an improved booster stage recovery system which could replace the original ESA system (References 28-30).

After years of testing the Vulcain engine (since 1990), an Ariane 5 first stage non-flight"battleship" (reinforced) configuration was fired for the first time on a pad at the Kourou spacelaunch facility on 17 November 1994. Although several months late, this program milestone demonstrated many key features of the critical Kourou infrastructure necessary for Ariane 5 missions. Meanwhile, the development phase of the L9 upper stage was completed, and Switzerland's Oerlikon-Contraves Space tested the large Ariane launch shroud, both in late 1994 (References 31-34).

Current estimates for Ariane 5 flight rates range from 5-10 per year with some payloads already tentatively manifested as late as 2007 (e.g., SPOT 5B). As many as 64 Ariane 5 vehicles will be built by the year 2010, and French officials have informally offered to license Ariane 5 technology to the US to meet heavy-lift requirements. Several concepts for improved and larger capacity Ariane 5 variants could keep the basic space transportation system operational for decades. However, enthusiasm within ESA for a massive upgrade program for Ariane, after an initial investment of nearly $7 billion and concerns about launch costs, is not high (References 35-41).

Specific Ariane 5 enhancements, including an improved Vulcain main engine and a change in the ratio and mass of the propellants, represent a near-term improvement which could increase the booster payload capacity to LEO by two metric tons. By combining the new main engine with two additional strap-on boosters, the LEO capacity could be increased by more than seven metric tons. This concept would employ two P130 boosters which are shortened versions of the standard P230 boosters and which would be ignited at altitude to avoid costly pad modifications. Another option includes replacing the small L9 upper stage with a more capable unit, e.g., the L15. To effect a much greater lift capability, preliminary designs envision a significant increase in the size of the central stage which would be equipped with five improved Vulcain engines and would be surrounded by four P230 boosters (References 42-45).

At the other end of the spectrum, ESA is evaluating the need for smaller launch vehicles which would be derived from Ariane 5 components. ESA's Future European Space Transportation Investigations Program (FESTIP) was approved in February 1994 for the period 1994-1996 with eight ESA member states participating. One concept envisions a launch vehicle employing a P230 booster as the main stage with a small solid-propellant second stage to place 5-metric-ton payloads into/LEO. Two other designs, ALD-P and ALD-S (Ariane Light Derivative - Polar and - Sun-synchronous), would be capable of launching payloads of up to 1 or 4 metric tons, respectively. A firm decision to develop a small launch vehicle or not was expected by 1996 (References 46-49).

FESTIP is also continuing ESA's Reusable Rocket Launcher (RRL) studies aimed at applying Ariane 5 technologies to partially or completely reusable space transportation systems (References 50-51). Designs employing Russian rocket engines (e.g., RD-170) or airborne launch platforms (e.g., An-225) are under consideration as are new ramjet and scramjet technologies.

Ariane 5 (France)

Background Information
First Launch:
May 1996
Flight Rate:
Up to 10 per year
Launch Site:
ELA-3 (Kourou, French Guiana)
39,600 to LEO; 26,400 lb to polar LEO; 15,000 lb to GTO (single payload); 13,160 lb to GTO (dual payload);


  • European Space Agency began Ariane 5 development in 1988
  • First Ariane flight in December 1979
  • Two primary goals of Ariane 5 program are to improve reliability and to lower cost.


  • Two-stage vehicle with two strap-on solid boosters
  • Stage 1 burns LH2/LO2 in one Vulcain HM60 engine generating a total thrust of 180,000 lb
  • Stage 2 burns N2O4/MMH in one L9 engine generating 6,140 lb of thrust
  • Two three-segment solid strap-on boosters burn HTPB generating 1,430,000 lb of thrust each
  • The thrust profile of the solid boosters is tailored to reduce thrust during maximum dynamic pressure so that the Vulcain HM60 is not required to throttle
  • The upper composite section includes the single second-stage engine, an electrical equipment bay, a bearing structure for one, two, or three satellites, and the fairing


177 ft (maximum)
Launch Weight:
1,570,000 lb
17.7 ft
Liftoff Thrust:
2,560,000 lb
Payload Fairing:
37.9 - 55.8 ft ft x 17.7 ft


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Implemented by Christina Lindborg, 1997 Scoville Fellow
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Originally created by John Pike
Updated Tuesday, July 1, 1997