ESA cancels plans for uprated Ariane 5 ECB

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The European Space Agency (ESA) has cancelled plans to develop the Ariane 5 ECB satellite launcher following the failure of the ECA model on its maiden flight in December with the loss of the two communications satellites it was carrying.

The ECB, which had already been delayed by budget cuts and market conditions, would have been able to to place a 12t payload into geostationary transfer orbit, with an inaugural flight planned for 2005.

The ESA says that, instead of developing more powerful versions, "existing versions should be consolidated", adding that the predicted downturn in the satellite industry makes the vehicle virtually redundant.

The ESA also wants a "more formal relationship" with French space agency CNES on the Ariane programme. Arianespace has a tough year ahead convincing customers its operational 5G launcher is not affected by the flaws revealed in the design of the Ariane 5 ECA.

The company is expected to order further models of the 5G, which was to have been phased out later this year, to leave the ECA as the sole launcher in the fleet until the now-cancelled ECB came on line.

The ECA failure may kick-start a consolidation of the European space industry, taking much of the responsibility for Ariane 5 out of the hands of CNES, which is being blamed for the setback.

Meanwhile, the final Ariane 4 booster will be used to launch the Intelsat 907 communications satellite on 12 February from Kourou, French Guiana. The final launch of the 44L version will bring to a close the booster's career, which contrasts with the mixed fortunes of the Ariane 5. The performance of the Ariane 5 has raised industry doubts over the booster's future reliability.