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The BBC's Sue Nelson
"Two out of three have failed"
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The BBC's Damian Carrington
"This is big European science"
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Dr Liz Puchnarewicz, Mullard Space Science Lab
UK scientists are heavily involved in the XMM project
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Friday, 10 December, 1999, 14:00 GMT
Ariane ready to go

Xmm Artist's impression of XMM in orbit (D. Ducros - Esa)

By BBC News Online's Damian Carrington in Kourou, French Guiana

All systems are go for the first commercial launch of Ariane 5.

To a large extent the future of the European space industry now sits on the launch pad, with the last of the 400 tonnes of rocket fuel being pumped on board.

Ariane 5 countdown
-9h 00m - Final countdown begins
-5h 20m - Start filling main fuel tank
-6m 37s - 'All systems go' report - launch sequence starts
-44s - Ignition system starts
-29s - Onboard computer takes control
-15s - Guidance systems unlocked
0s - Solid fuel boosters ignite
+0.3s - Lift off
It should arc over the Atlantic Ocean heading for space. And, after 30 minutes, it should have delivered a $689m satellite built by the European Space Agency (Esa) safely into orbit.

Robert Laine, project manager for the XMM (X-ray Multi-Mirrors) observatory which makes up Friday's payload, told BBC News Online: "We are not worried at all.

"All the teams are very happy and relaxed. We have a good rocket and a good satellite."

Success is vital for Arianespace's new generation of rocket, if the company is to continue to dominate the global satellite launch business.

The stakes are also high for the European Space Agency, which has entrusted its most expensive and complex science satellite to Ariane 5.

Although just one of the three previous test flights was a complete success, the Arianespace and ESA teams are upbeat.

"I am always nervous before any launch because it is quite a feat," said Jean-Marie Luton, Chairman and Chief Executive of Arianespace.

Load Technitians load XMM with the hydrazine fuel
"But I am most confident as the testing has gone very well and the quality of the product is excellent."

The only glitch so far on launch day was a picket of strikers delaying people entering the Guiana Space Centre by up to one hour. Three unions are demanding the creation of 250 jobs for local people.

"We are doing this to let the bosses know that we need this work," said Kenneth Arthur, a mechanic. "Just now this base is only for France, not Guiana."

However, all mission-critical staff were on the base by 0400 local time.

Flight sequence
+6s - Rocket begins to pitch
+10s - Rocket begins to roll
+2m 16s - Solid fuel boosters jettison
+3m 09s - Protective fairings jettison
+9m 42s - Liquid fuel stage seperates
+9m 49s - Upper stage ignites
+26m 33s - Upper stage firing ends
+28m 47s - XMM satellite deployed
Ariane 5 is the most powerful vehicle ever produced in Europe, with 1,200 tonnes of thrust. Just one of its two solid fuel boosters is more powerful than the whole of its predecessor, Ariane 4.

If all goes well, then the rocket, travelling at 35,000 km/h, will deliver the satellite into its elliptical orbit 29 minutes after lift-off.

There may then be one minute of telemetry data reporting the satellite's condition, received by the tracking station near Madrid, Spain.

If not, first contact will be made from Perth, Australia, about one hour after launch.

Nobody is contemplating failure. Nevertheless, the spectre of the first experimental Ariane 5, which exploded in 1996, still haunts the launch.

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See also:
09 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
The soaring business of rockets
10 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Ready to X-ray the Universe
30 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
X-raying the violent Universe

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