Tim Furniss/PARIS

Eutelsat has withdrawn its W2 communications satellite from the next Ariane 5 development flight, leaving the European Space Agency (ESA) to fill the void with a mock-up of the Aerospatiale spacecraft.

As a result, ESA's Ariane 503 development flight this October will not carry a commercial payload as planned.

Eutelsat's Aerospatiale-built W2 communications satellite, which was unofficially being prepared for the mission, has been dropped from the flight and the Ariane 5 booster will carry a representative mock-up of the satellite provided by Aerospatiale, as well as the Atmospheric Re-entry Demonstrator capsule as planned earlier.

Eutelsat, the European communications satellite operator, says that, after the loss of the W1 communications satellite in a fire at Aerospatiale's factory in Cannes in May - for which Aerospatiale has made a $50 million insurance claim - it is "-not now prepared to take the additional risk" of launching the W2 on the Ariane 5.

Eutelsat says that it needed the W2 quickly to provide extra capacity following the W1 loss and made the decision for operational reasons to switch the launch to a proven Ariane 44L.

"The search for a new passenger for 503 cannot be reconciled with the planning schedule to complete qualification of the Ariane 5," say Arianespace, ESA and French space agency CNES in a joint statement on 16 June.

Ariane 503 is viewed as a critical test of confidence in the booster, after a catastrophic failure in June 1996 and a "successful" test flight in October 1997 which nonetheless failed to place its technology payloads into an accurate geostationary transfer orbit (Flight International, 11-17 March).The first Arianespace fully commercial Ariane 5 flight, Ariane 504, is scheduled for January 1999.

In the meantime, Eutelsat W2 will also fly in October, on one of seven Ariane 4 launches planned from August to the end of the year (not including 503) after a launch hiatus since April, which Arianespace blames on the late delivery of customer satellites.

Source: Flight International