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What’s that rocket? Meet the Ariane 5

On the outside, the Ariane 5 can easily be mistaken for any generic rocket but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Arianespace’s largest launcher falls into the heavy-lift category of rockets and it regularly flexes its might. And it does it in a unique way.

One thing you won’t hear related to the Ariane 5 is talk of small sats. While it’s possible to launch a few small sats or cube sats, the Ariane 5 will usually take multiple satellites of more conventional sizes. It does this with what can be thought of as a double faring system, though that’s far from the technical term.

Image credit: Arianespace

Here’s how the process works: during the climb uphill, the main faring separates like virtually every other launcher we see. Powered flight ends and we see the deployment of the first passenger (then the second, if two were attached to each other). Shortly after, a protective cover separates from the stage and falls away. They call this the Sylda. The top of it has a payload attach fitting for the first passenger, and the rest of it looks kind of like a black cup turned over. This allows Arianespace to utilize the full might of its rocket for multiple customers on one launch instead of wasting launch power for one satellite.

Sylda deployment animation during VA253 webcast

Here’s the Ariane 5 by the numbers, straight from their site:

  • First launch: June 4, 1996
  • Launches-to-date: 108 (as of August 17, 2020)
  • Height: 50.5 meters
  • Weight 780 tons
  • Payload to orbit: 10 tons to GTO, 20 tons to LEO
  • 2 side-mounted SRBs with steerable nozzles producing 7000 kN of thrust
  • Core stage with Vulcain 2 engine using liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid hydrogen (LH2) as propellants
  • Second stage with HM7B engine using LOX and LH2 as propellants
  • Payload faring height of 17m, width of 5.4m
  • Sylda diameter of 4.56m and height ranging from 4.9m to 7m, depending on enclosed payload
  • Launch site: Launch Zone ELA-3 at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, South America

Arianespace is currently developing the Ariane 5’s successor, the Ariane 6, with its first launch expected in 2020 or early 2021.