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The Ariane rocket celebrates its 30th birthday

Jonathan Amos | 14:33 UK time, Thursday, 24 December 2009

It's a birthday celebration. Thirty years ago today, the Ariane 1 rocket made its first flight from Kourou in French Guiana.

Three decades later - via some ups and downs - the European rocket programme has become a big success.

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The Ariane 5 - the latest in the series - dominates the large commercial satellite business.

Its seven missions this year have orbited 10 big telecoms platforms, including the heaviest ever flown - the Terrestar-1 satellite that had a launch mass of 6,910kg.

The 2009 campaign even had room for a couple of major science telescopes and two missile defence system spacecraft.

Ariane grew out of the failed Europa rocket programme of the late 1960s.

Europa, you will recall, was a UK-initiated project for which the British, the French and the Germans would each provide a stage.

Only the British contribution - derived from its Blue Streak missile - worked on each of the four launches.

Ariane 5 launchWhen the Brits walked away, the French and the Germans decided to stick with it.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The Franco-German alliance had a strong incentive to succeed.

They'd developed a couple of telecommunications satellites called Symphonie; and when it became clear Europa could not launch them, the two nations approached the US to get a ride on one of its Delta rockets.

The then US President, Richard Nixon, agreed but, keen to protect the market monopoly enjoyed at the time by the Intelsat organisation, told the Europeans that Symphonie could not be used commercially. They could use them only as technology demonstrators.

"Guaranteed independent access to space" is now one of the core missions of the European Space Agency, which has led much of the Ariane development down the years. And you can understand why.

The next few years will be fascinating. There are new entrants into the heavy-lift market that could seriously dent Ariane's position.

I've spoken in this blog previously about Elon Musk's Falcon programme. He is promising a brochure price for his largest rocket that would seriously undercut Ariane. Can he really deliver on price? Just as important from the customer's perspective, can he deliver the reliability?

But there are sure to be others. I was interested to see the first flight in September of Japan's H-IIb rocket. This was developed to send the HTV freighter to the space station, but it also has the ability to put large payloads into geostationary transfer orbits.

The Terrestar-1 satelliteWill the Japanese start touting this rocket as a serious commercial launch contender?

What access will there be to Chinese rockets in the future? At the moment, US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) prevent most satellites from riding Long March vehicles.

We know where Ariane is going in the next few years. Just this week, the Ariane prime contractor EADS Astrium was commissioned to lead the project to beef up the European "workhorse".

The Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution programme, as it is known, will raise the payload capacity of the Ariane 5 from 10 to 12 tonnes. It will also introduce a new upper-stage for the launch vehicle.

This will feature the new, re-ignitable Vinci engine. It will give the rocket more flexibility - to fly a wider range of payloads into different types of orbit.

And the discussion about a long-term successor [PDF 2Mb] - an Ariane 6 - has already been initiated by the French. What form should it take?

Answering that question involves trying to second-guess what spacecraft manufacturers and operators will want to be doing a long way into the future.

On that front, it's worthy of note that while the very biggest satellites have got bigger, there appears to be something of a stabilisation in size of the spacecraft now being ordered in general - even a reduction in size.

If you look at the contracts signed by Arianespace (the company that markets Ariane rockets) this year, they are mostly for satellites in the three-to-four-tonne class. Only one is expected to weigh five tonnes.

Whatever direction the European rocket programme takes, a way has got to be found to reduce the price of access to space.

Simple maths shows the factory gate cost of an Ariane 5 is about 115m euros.

Artist's impression of an ARV launchThe Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution should go some way to achieving lower costs because it will give the workhorse more versatility from a singular design; it won't be necessary to maintain different versions of the rocket for different types of mission.

The one exception of course might be a human launcher if Europe does eventually proceed with its proposed Advanced Re-entry Vehicle.

Anyway, that's all for the future. In the meantime, we have the excitement in 2010 of seeing a brand new European rocket called Vega make its maiden flight. It's a story that's sure to occupy quite a bit of my time in the coming months.

If you haven't caught some of the web resources out there celebrating Ariane's birthday, make a first stop at http://www.happybirthday-ariane.eu/. The Esa website also has some flashy new films and a nice gallery of archive pictures. And Euronews carries a short historical summary in video.

I've attached film footage to this page of the first flight of Ariane 1. It contains some good slow-motion sequences. Note the claws that hold the rocket down on the pad until it's ready to lift off - a UK contribution.

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