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Technical Problems Delay Launch of Upgraded Ariane 5

The enhanced version of Europe's Ariane 5 rocket will not be launched until late January to give managers more time to verify its flight-worthiness, Arianespace Chief Executive Officer Jean-Yves Le Gall said Nov. 18. The decision clears the way for a Dec. 10 launch of a standard-version Ariane 5 carrying observation and signals-intelligence satellites for the French Defense Ministry.

In a briefing with journalists, Le Gall said the commercial-launch consortium will not take any unnecessary risks with the flight of the new-version Ariane 5, called Ariane 5 ECA, whose maiden flight ended in failure in December 2002.

Several technical issues, which he did not specify, were highlighted as unresolved during a Nov. 17 review of the Ariane 5 ECA's status, forcing a decision to delay the launch, Le Gall said.

The Evry, France-based company was under pressure from European governments to launch the Ariane 5 ECA in December ahead of the standard-version vehicle. He said French defense authorities had exerted no pressure on the company to place the launch of their Helios 2A optical and infrared reconnaissance satellite ahead of the Ariane 5 ECA on Arianespace's launch manifest.

European Space Agency (ESA) governments have paid 555 million euros ($716 million) to rework the rocket's main cryogenic stage, which caused the December 2002 failure, and to reassess the entire Ariane 5 ECA design, Le Gall said.

The Ariane 5 ECA is designed to carry two satellites with a combined weight of up to 10,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, the destination of most commercial telecommunications satellites. The standard-version Ariane 5 can place slightly more than 6,000 kilograms into the same orbit.

Some European government officials had suggested that Arianespace would delay the Ariane 5 ECA launch to please the French Defense Ministry, a valued customer and one paying better-than-commercial rates.

Le Gall denied that any motives other than technical were involved. "Arianespace has the most to gain from an early launch of the ECA version," Le Gall said. "But Arianespace also has the most to lose in the event of a failed launch. No one would forgive us if we launched before all technical issues, even the smaller ones, were resolved definitively."

Le Gall also rejected any suggestion that Arianespace needed to book the French government payload's launch in 2004 to meet its financial objectives for the year. The French Defense Ministry is paying the standard rate for its launch, while the Ariane 5 ECA rocket's main passenger -- the Xtar-Eur satellite owned by U.S. and Spanish companies -- is paying virtually no money up front and only a fraction of the normal launch price afterward, once its business starts generating sales.

According to Le Gall, the Ariane 5 ECA launch, even with a non-paying passenger, will generate more revenue for Arianespace than the French government mission. ESA governments' 555 million-euro investment includes a payment for the launch.

The company expects to report year-2004 revenues slightly in excess of 600 million euros, with a small profit, Le Gall said.

Le Gall said the Vulcain-2 main stage cryogenic engine that failed in December 2002 has been cleared for launch after a lengthy redesign and a series of test firings. The remaining technical issues relate to other aspects of the rocket.

Arianespace would conduct a second wet dress rehearsal of the Ariane 5 ECA in January. The rehearsal that had been planned for Nov. 9 was cancelled because of a glitch in ground equipment unrelated to the launcher or the launch pad, Le Gall said.

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Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for and Live Science. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica. Visit him at