The final mission of Europe's Ariane-4 rocket series placed a telecommunications satellite into orbit today, ending a 116-launch career two weeks after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia.
Today's Ariane-4 flight was to have been a triumphant event, but the destruction of the Columbia on February 1 with its seven crew and problems with Ariane-5 have cast a shadow over space exploration.
The Ariane-4 rocket deployed the satellite for global operator INTELSAT after its launch had been delayed for three days due to bad weather, Arianespace officials said at the launch site in French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America.
First launched in 1988, Ariane-4 had failed only three times. Since 1994, the rocket has had a streak of 74 consecutive successful launches.
Arianespace decided to stop production of Ariane-4 because the rocket can only launch communications satellite payloads with a maximum weight of five metric tonnes, seen as insufficient for current market demands.
It has been replaced by the more powerful Ariane-5 rocket series. But Ariane-5 has been grounded since a failure in December that destroyed two satellites worth over $600 million. That flight used the first version of Ariane-5 capable of launching payloads of up to 10 metric tonnes.