The launch of a rocket is the crowning moment, the culmination of a long process of careful machining and construction. What comes out of a rocket factory is a unique blend of power, scale and engineering skill.
“To give you an idea of scale, the thrust at liftoff of a rocket like Ariane is like the power of two units of a nuclear power station, and the turbo pump that feeds the rocket engine has the power of a TGV train,” says Michel Freuchet, Head of Launchers at Astrium, near Paris, where the Ariane 5 launcher was born.
Piece by piece, it is hewn from solid aluminium and brought to life. The central structure of Ariane 5 is made from huge sheets of top-grade aluminium. Aluminium is used because it is best suited to withstand the extremely low temperatures of the liquid hydrogen and oxygen propellants. One by one, the panels are machined into shape — with many areas as thin as two milimetres. More than 90% of the aluminium is removed and recycled, leaving behind the perfect central part of each panel.
There are three main European launchers ready to rocket into space.
Ariane 5 is the biggest, capable of lifting 10 tonnes into orbit. Soyuz is the Russian workhorse, with a three-tonne payload capacity, while Vega is the European Space Agency’s new rocket, designed to take 1.5 tonne satellites into low orbit.
Faced with increased competition from the Far East and private companies in the US, the European Space Agency is treating Ariane to a make-over. The Ariane 5 ME, or Midlife Evolution, will be able to combine the launch of communication satellites and scientific missions.
Looking ahead a decade, some of the new technology in Ariane 5 ME will be included in its successor Ariane 6. The European Space Agency sees the evolution as a strategic move to meet the demands of both commercial and scientific customers.
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