A-Z of European Space

The first decades: 1959-1994

Ariane (also known as LIIIS)

Born out of the ESRO LIIIS project to develop a competitive European satellite launcher, the name Ariane was adopted by delegates at ESRO’s AFC (Administrative and Finance Committee) in September 1973. The success of Ariane’s first launch, on 24 December 1979, paved the way to hundreds of further launches, and to obtaining a significant share of global commercial launch contracts.

Ariane-1 – 1979

Ariane-2/3 – 1984

Ariane-4 – 1988

Ariane-5 heavy-lift satellite launcher –first operational flight 1999


First satellite to be launched by the newly created ESA, in 1975, and the first European mission to study gamma-ray sources and to be dedicated to a single experiment. Cos-B’s single payload was a gamma-ray telescope which performed the first complete galactic survey in high-energy gamma rays.


The European Communications Satellite (ECS) was the first European regional satellite communications system, operated by Eutelsat, with ESA providing the first-generation space segment.

ECS-1 was launched in June 1983 and handed over to Eutelsat in October. It provided services to Europe and north Africa via three spot beams and a single Eurobeam. ECS-2 was launched in August 1984 and added the Satellite Multiservice System for business users. The ECS-1 mission ended in 1996, ECS-2 in 1993. ECS-3 was launched in September 1985 (but destroyed in a launch failure), ECS-4 in September 1987 and ECS-5 in July 1988. Mission end for ECS-4 and ECS-5 was in December 2002 and May 2000 respectively.

Each one of the ECS satellites (with the exception of ECS-3) served well beyond their 7-year design goals and enabled coverage of the whole European continent for cable television, telephone communications, specialised services and Eurovision transmissions. The ECS system altogether accumulated more than 3 million hours of operation.


Acronym for Ensemble de Lancement Ariane (Ariane Launch Area), the launch pad and associated facilities at the Centre Spatial Guyanais in Kourou, French Guiana, operated by Arianespace.

The first Ariane vehicles were launched from the ELA-1 complex at the Kourou site. ELA-1 was closed in December 1989 and dismantled in 1991, it was replaced by ELA-2 to handle the more powerful Ariane-4 vehicles.

ELA-2 was used for two Ariane-3 launches (V17 in 1986, V25 in 1988), the second Ariane-2 launch in 1987 and all 116 Ariane-4 launches between 1988 and 2003. Following the retirement of the Ariane-4 in favour of the Ariane-5, ELA-2 was deactivated. It was demolished in September 2011.

ELA-3 operates as part of the expendable launch system for Ariane-5 launch vehicles. Over 100 launches have been carried out from it, the first on 4 June 1996. The last Ariane-5 launch was on 5 July 2023.



ESRO satellite, ESRO-1A (Aurora) launched in 1968, ESRO-1B (Boreas) in 1969. ESRO-1A examined how the auroral zones responded to geomagnetic and solar activity. ESRO-1B intended to provide measurements from a lower circular orbit, orbit was lower than planned and reentry occurred within weeks.


ESRO’s first satellite, increased understanding of near-Earth space and looked at solar X-rays, cosmic radiation and Earth’s radiation belts. ESRO-2A launched in 1967 (launch failure) and ESRO-2B successfully launched in 1968 (renamed Iris once in orbit).


Based on the design of ESRO-2 and launched in 1972. Its five experiments focused on the Earth’s ionosphere, atmosphere and radiation belts and advanced understanding of relationships between solar radiation and the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic environment.


The European Retrievable Carrier (Eureca) was the world’s first dedicated microgravity free-flyer and Europe’s first reusable satellite. Approved by ESA Council in 1981, it was planned as a follow-on to the Spacelab programme and designed to carry a mix of experiments and to be released and retrieved by the Space Shuttle. It was capable of making five flights over a ten-year period.
Eureca-1 was launched with 15 experiments in July 1992 on Shuttle mission STS-46 and its highly successful mission ended in June 1993, with recovery by Shuttle mission STS-57.


Euromir '94/95

The Euromir missions involved the transfer of two European astronauts to the Russian space station Mir. Euromir '94, launched on 3rd October 1994, was a 31-day mission undertaken by the German astronaut Ulf Merbold. The follow-up mission Euromir '95, launched on 3rd September 1995 and lasting 179 days, was undertaken by the Geman astronaut Thomas Reiter. During Reiter's mission, he performed two spacewalks.


The first European satellite launcher development programme, coming under the responsibility of ELDO, which came into being in 1964. 11 launches (F1 – F11) between 1964 and 1971 from Woomera (Australia) and Kourou (French Guiana). Stage 1 – Blue Streak, Stage 2 – Coralie, Stage 3 – Astris.