The countdown has begun for the launch of the new Ariane 5 ECA: The new model, which is capable of transporting ten tons of cargo, will power up into the sky on Saturday.
Ariane 5 ECA is almost ready be propelled through the atmosphere
The rocket will blast off from the European launch station in Kourou, French Guiana, where a group of German engineers are working on the finishing touches.
In the 14-story assembly hall, ten men in white overalls are screwing nuts onto a huge white barrel five and a half meters in diameters and as high as three wardrobes stacked on top of each other. The barrel is the highest part of the rocket, which was built in the northern German city of Bremen, to carry satellites into orbit.
A heavy-weight transporter
Steven Kubacki is one of the technicians at EADS Space, working to assemble, or "integrate," as the experts say, the new Ariane 5 ECA. Piece by piece it grows upwards complete with jets, towering fuel tanks, and boosters.
The world will be watching the blast-off with baited breath, remembering the fated first attempt back in December 2002 when the control center had to blow the rocket up, causing €130 million ($167 million) to come shattering back down to earth in shards.
Horst Holsten, known to his colleagues at EADS as "Mr Ariane," said the error, which was traced back to the engine, has been eliminated.
Horst Holsten of EADS Space
He has been involved in the development of all the Ariane rockets from the first prototype which dates back 26 years to the newest Ariane 5 ECA. He started out as an engineer, but went on to become team leader, and after many years as head of the carrier rocket department, he is now coming up for retirement.
But before that happens, Holsten wants to see the new ECA soar up through the skies, carrying 10 tons of cargo -- 67 percent more weight than its predecessor.
"As soon as the moment for blast-off arrives, as soon as the rocket has been launched, there is nothing more we can do from the ground," he said. "As soon as it is gone, we can only hope there is nothing we have forgotten."
Testing the skies
The Ariane expert is not the only one who is hoping that nothing gets forgotten. Operators of the XTAR satellite which will be the main cargo on this virgin flight, have their fingers firmly crossed. In order to test whether the Ariane 5 ECA is really as strong as the engineers have calculated, they will also be sending some dead freight laden with measuring equipment.
If everything goes according to plan the technicians will turn their attention to their next goal of expanding the cargo capability of the rocket to 12 tons. But with the boom in the telecommunications market and the demand in transport for large expensive satellites over, it is far from clear whether such a successor model will ever actually be built.