Ariane 5 rocket launches 2 communications satellites to orbit

Europe's Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket roared back into action Friday (July 30) after nearly a yearlong hiatus.

An Ariane 5 lifted off from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT; 6 p.m. local time in Kourou), carrying two communications satellites to orbit. Both spacecraft were deployed as planned less than 40 minutes after liftoff.

One of the satellites, called Star One D2, will be operated by the Brazilian telecom company Embratel. Star One D2 will allow Embratel "to expand broadband coverage to new regions in Central and South America, provide internet access to underserved populations and add an updated X-band payload for government use over the Atlantic region," representatives of the French company Arianespace, which operates the Ariane 5, wrote in a mission description.

Ariane 5: European heavy-lift rocket

An Ariane 5 rocket carrying two communications satellites launches from Kourou, French Guiana, on July 30, 2021.

An Ariane 5 rocket carrying two communications satellites launches from Kourou, French Guiana, on July 30, 2021. (Image credit: Arianespace)

The other satellite flying today, called Eutelsat Quantum, features an active antenna that's "a first for the European commercial telecommunications industry," Arianespace representatives wrote in the mission description. "This new antenna technology complements new generation fully digital payloads where the operator can thus change the coverage, frequencies and the power of its spacecraft."

Eutelsat Quantum was developed jointly by French company Eutelsat, Airbus Defence and Space and the European Space Agency. It will be operated by Eutelsat.

Together, Star One D2 and Eutelsat Quantum tip the scales at 23,182 pounds (10,515 kilograms), Arianespace representatives said. The two satellites were deployed today into geostationary transfer orbits. They'll eventually settle into geostationary orbit, about 22,200 miles (35,700 kilometers) above Earth, where their orbital period will match the planet's rotational period. Many communications satellites head for this orbit, which allows properly positioned ground-based antennas to stay in constant contact with them.

Today's launch was the first action for an Ariane 5 since August 2020. On two different missions last year, the powerful rocket experienced issues with the system that allows separation of its payload fairing, the protective "nose cone" that surrounds satellites during launch. Both of those missions were successful, but Arianespace sidelined the Ariane 5 for a spell to make sure it understood and mitigated the issue, as SpaceNews reported

The Ariane 5 will be busy in the next few months. The rocket is scheduled to lift off again in September, on a mission that will loft another batch of communications satellites. Then, in November or December, an Ariane 5 will launch NASA's $9.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, a highly anticipated observatory billed as the successor to the iconic Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA therefore had a keen interest in today's flight. In fact, Thomas Zurbuchen, head of the agency's Science Mission Directorate, traveled to Kourou to watch it in person.

"Beautiful morning on launch day at Europe’s space port in Kourou! Looking forward to the day with @esa, @Arianespace and partners, while thinking of another launch later this year! @NASAWebb," Zurbuchen tweeted this morning.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.