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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 January, 2005, 16:47 GMT
Europe's 'super rocket' to launch
Ariane 5-ECA rocket on the launch pad (Image: Esa)
The ECA can lift a lot more into space, cutting launch costs
Europe's "super rocket" capable of launching more than one and heavier satellites into orbit is set to take its first trip into space next month.

A "wet-rehearsal" took place at the Kourou spaceport on Wednesday to prepare for its launch on 11 February.

The Ariane 5-ECA rocket, dubbed Europe's workhorse, has not flown since it self-destructed over the Atlantic on its maiden flight in December 2002.

A cooling system leak affected its main engine causing it to lose control.

Wednesday's wet rehearsal involved a complete fuelling of the craft, and an entire launch countdown.

It was necessary to test all the launcher equipment and ground facilities at Europe's Kourou Spaceport in French Guiana.

The measurements collected during the rehearsal are now being analysed to prepare for the launch, which was originally scheduled for last year.

Meanwhile, launch operations were continuing at Kourou in the run-up to the planned lift-off, barring any test anomalies.

'Very committed'

Flight 164 is the first of two qualifying flights. On board will be a Spanish satellite and a tank of water.

The Sloshsat-FLEVO small satellite carrying 33.5 litres of water is designed to help European scientists find out more about the movement of water in microgravity and its effects on satellites.

What satellites are for, where they go, and how are they launched

Jean-Yves Le Gall, chief executive officer of Arianespace which markets all of Europe's launches, told the BBC News website that a full technical review had taken place of the launcher.

He said the company was "very, very committed to the success of this flight".

"We cannot imagine to have another failure, and so we undertook a full review of all the parts of the launch vehicle in order to ensure that everything is being cross-checked, everything has been fully tested, and everything will be successful," he said.

After December 2002's disastrous mission, satellite launches had to be done on Ariane 5 Generic rockets.

They are currently capable of carrying up to six tonnes into space. Its last launch in December, its 20th, carried the observation and reconnaissance satellite for the French defence ministry, Helios 2A.

The newer Ariane 5-ECA has much more power and can lift up to 10 tonnes of satellite into geostationary (GEO) and more into low Earth orbit (LEO).

Sloshsat being loaded (Image: ESA/CNES/Arianespace)
Sloshsat will help scientists study how fluid behaves in microgravity
This is very important for Arianespace as a commercial launch company because it means if more than one satellite can go up at the same time, it can sell its services at a lower price.

"The ECA version of Ariane 5 has the scope to allow Arianespace to combine payloads without difficulties in making them complement each other," said Antonio Fabrizi, director of the launchers programme at Esa.

"At a time when the market is low and the opportunities of launch are lower - there are fewer flights than in the past - this launcher gives a great flexibility in combining the payloads."

Crucially, this puts it in a better position in the global marketplace which has suffered in the last few years from under-demand and over capacity.

"We think this launch vehicle is going to revolutionise the launch services in the world because it will bring to our customers the double launch affordability and because of the performance of this launch vehicle it will also bring single launch flexibility," sad Mr Le Gall.

The demand for big telecommunications satellites, which provide broadband telecommunications and digital TV, has dropped off as satellite technology improves meaning they do not need replacing as often.

Essentially, Ariane 5-ECA has the same technological architecture as the generic launchers, but a number of changes have been made to give it more thrust.

The main differences include more propellant in the boosters, and main Vulcain 2 cryogenic engine has been modified to improve the combustion of liquid oxygen and hydrogen.

The upper section of the Ariane 5-ECA boosters can carry 10% - about 2.5 tonnes - more propellant. The technology was used on the much older Ariane 4 launcher, which was phased out.

The new boosters are also equipped with a new nozzle which has fewer parts and so is easier and cheaper to produce.

Arianespace is the commercial launch services leader with more than a 50% share of the international market for satellites launched to GEO.

It buys up, markets, and operates Europe's rockets under a charter of the European Space Agency (ESA) and is owned by a collection of European governments, aerospace firms, banks and the French space agency CNES.

The rockets it operates include the Ariane 5s, the forthcoming Vega vehicles, and Soyuz rockets from Russian company Starsem.

Arianespace's main competitor is International Launch Services, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin in the US and the Khrunichev Space Center in Russia, which markets the Proton launch rocket, and Boeing Company's Sea Launch.

Q&A: Jean-Yves Le Gall
30 Nov 04 |  Science/Nature
Clawing back demand for satellites
26 Dec 04 |  Science/Nature
Major satellite lift for Ariane
18 Jul 04 |  Science/Nature
Europe's rockets get boosted
27 May 03 |  Science/Nature
Engine glitch brought down rocket
07 Jan 03 |  Science/Nature

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