Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: Sci/Tech
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

The BBC's Sue Nelson
"It was a perfect lift off"
 real 28k

Friday, 10 December, 1999, 20:43 GMT
Ariane soars to success

Ariane 5 rockets skyward Ariane 5 rockets skyward

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

The first commercial Ariane 5 rocket has blasted off into the blue skies of French Guiana, signalling a major success for the European space industry.

Within 30 minutes the rocket had delivered its $690m cargo, a European Space Agency satellite, into orbit. That completed a perfect mission.

It's an emotional moment. This mission impossible has become possible.
ESA chairman of science Roger Bonnet
Hundreds of scientists and engineers watched in delight, as the roar of the engines washed over them. The rocket and satellite represented a decade of their work, but the 400 tonnes of fuel ignited safely and shot their efforts into space.

In the mission control rooms in French Guiana and Europe, the smiles blazed as brightly as the rocket's engines.

The Ariane 5 took off as scheduled at 1432GMT. After two minutes, the solid fuel boosters detached and a pair of fiery specks floated down. Then the rocket disappeared from view.

Six minutes later, a tracking ship in the Atlantic locked on to the Ariane 5, tracing its safe passage into orbit.

The 50m-tall rocket quickly reached its top speed of 35,000 km/h and, almost 29 minutes after lift-off, explosive bolts released the payload, the XMM (X-ray Multi Mirrors) satellite.

Crowds at launch site All eyes up as Ariane blasts off
A brief 60-second message transmitted to Villafranca in Spain then reported the satellite's position.

The X-ray observatory's next contact was with Perth, Australia, just under an hour after lift-off. All was well and both solar panels had deployed successfully, giving full power to XMM.

Initial disaster

It was all so different from the disastrous first Ariane 5 test flight in 1996. Then the rocket exploded shortly after take-off and destroyed ESA's Cluster satellites.

Jean-Marie Luton, Chairman and Chief Executive of Arianespace, said the rocket had done its job: "It appears to be an excellent orbit for XMM, so I am very happy.

"Arianespace was highly honoured by the trust put in us when Esa signed this contract in June 1996, very shortly after the first Ariane 5 flight."

He said the launch of the Ariane 5, a new generation of rocket, was "like the delivery of a baby: everything is healthy but we still have everything to learn".

Mr Luton announced that six Ariane 5 rocket launches were planned for the year 2000, with the first at the end of February.

Confidence boost

The successful launch is a massive confidence boost for Ariane 5 after its catastrophic first flight.

Tense pre-launch moments at Mission Control Tense pre-launch moments at Mission Control
It is the most powerful vehicle ever built in Europe and can carry one heavy satellite or two smaller ones. It is now well placed to win the contracts to launch the large satellites which increasingly dominate the industry.

Arianespace says it has 42 satellites waiting to launch and its customers will now be much more happy to use Ariane 5.

Its ability to double up on launches will also increase Arianespace's profitability, which was believed to be marginal in 1999.

Calculated risk

For Esa, the successful insertion into orbit of its most expensive and complex science satellite ever came as a relief. It was a calculated risk to entrust the project to the first commercial flight of Ariane 5, even though the rocket's most recent test was successful.

On its first circuit around the globe, XMM began the task of achieving its unusual, highly eccentric orbit. Its closest distance to Earth is 7,000km.

But the first firing of its hydrazine-fuelled engines is due to be followed by two more before Christmas and will boost its maximum distance from Earth to 114,000km.

XMM will remain in safe mode until 4 January, to avoid any possible millennium bug problems caused by communications systems on the ground.

Then, after a commissioning period, XMM will start examining the Universe in March.

Roger Bonnet, chairman of science at the European Space Agency, said: "XMM is all alone now. It's an emotional moment for Esa and the scientists. This mission impossible has become possible."

Dr Martin Turner, from Leicester University and principal investigator on XMM's main instrument, said: "I felt very emotional at the launch. There's the feeling of adventure, putting us in touch with space, and that is everybody's dream."

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console

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

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites
Links to other Sci/Tech stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Sci/Tech stories