The last European Ariane 5 launch vehicle has launched into space – but that’s no cause for celebration for European space travel. Because after the launch of the rocket last night from the European spaceport in Kourou in French Guiana, Europe now lacks the means to launch large satellites into space. And there are also problems with the lighter satellites at the moment.

In its long history, Ariane 5 quickly became the world market leader for the transport of telecommunications satellites and at the same time secured Europe’s access to space. The launch vehicle’s significant missions included those with the James Webb telescope to succeed Hubble (2021), those with the BepiColombo probe to Mercury (2018) and with the Galileo satellites, which enabled Europe’s independence in the field of navigation.

The 117th launch since 1997

As announced by the rocket operator Arianespace, the last Ariane 5 was launched with a German telecommunications satellite and a French military satellite on board. Arianespace is part of the ArianeGroup, which in turn is a joint venture between the European aerospace group Airbus and the French engine manufacturer Safran.

It was the 117th launch for Ariane 5 since 1997. Its successor, Ariane 6, should have had its premiere three years ago. But the first flight of the rocket, which is intended to make European space travel more competitive, has been postponed several times. In the meantime, the European space agency Esa is aiming for the start at the end of the year – and thus with a delay of three years.

“A huge problem for all of us”

The situation for Esa is difficult because the launch vehicle for lighter satellites is also problematic. The newly inaugurated Vega C had a false start on its first commercial flight in December and is now grounded. “From the middle of this year we will not have guaranteed Europe’s access to space with European launch vehicles and that is a huge problem for all of us,” said ESA boss Josef Aschbacher, describing the situation.

According to Esa, the crisis began almost a year ago when Russia decided to withdraw its Soyuz rockets from the European spaceport in Kourou in French Guiana in the course of the Ukraine war. It is not yet clear when exactly Esa wants to use the Vega C again. It is expected to take off again later this year. The Vega C is a further development of the Vega rocket, which has been launching light satellites into space since 2012.