European space agency set to launch Ariane-5 rocket
Web posted at 4:30 p.m. ET
KOUROU, French Guiana (Reuters) - The launch of Western Europe's third new-generation Ariane-5 rocket has been set for Wednesday, space officials said.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is keeping its fingers crossed that all goes well after the first Ariane-5 rocket exploded shortly after liftoff in 1996 and the second version suffered some technical problems in a 1997 launch.
"All pre-flight operations are going as planned," Bernard Puygrenier, head of the Ariane 503 mission, told a news conference late on Monday. "We've had good technical and weather information and the mission is off to a good start."
The rocket, to be launched from the ESA launch center in Kourou on South America's northeast coast, will carry an experimental scientific capsule to simulate a manned capsule's re-entry into the atmosphere as well as a "dummy satellite" that will copy the orbit of a communications satellite.
The launch is set for between 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. (1600 and 1730 GMT).
Liftoff previously had been targeted for Tuesday but fueling last week took longer than planned, pushing back the operation by 24 hours.
Ariane-5 is designed to launch heavier satellite payloads at lower prices than the current generation Ariane-4 rocket in service since 1988.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said the United States had overtaken Europe in launching commercial payloads, with 17 liftoffs in 1997.
Europe had dominated the market since 1986, when the U.S. space shuttle Challenger exploded, leading to a ban on commercial payloads aboard the shuttle fleet.
But the Ariane-5 program suffered a major setback when its maiden flight exploded 37 seconds after lift-off in June 1996 destroying a $500 million scientific satellite.
A second Ariane-5 flight in October 1997, though flawed, restored a certain measure of confidence to the 10-year, $10 billion program.
The Paris-based Arianespace rocket launch company plans to take over commercial operations of Ariane-5 after this launch.
Officials said the company has 39 satellites on order to be launched worth an estimated $3.4 billion.
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