Rockets are used to launch satellites and shuttles into space. Their powerful engines allow spacecraft to be blasted into space at incredible speeds, putting them into the correct orbit. Europe's most important rocket family is the Ariane. Since 1979, five types of Ariane rocket have flown from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana.
The basic version of Ariane-5, called the Ariane-5 Generic, first flew successfully in 1997. It weighed 750 tonnes at launch. It could lift two satellites weighing a total of more than six tonnes into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).
In order to compete with large launchers from other countries, more powerful Ariane 5s have been developed. The Ariane-5 ECA can deliver up to 10 tonnes to GTO orbit and this lift capacity may eventually be raised in the future. Another version, called Ariane-5 ES, carries the 19 tonne Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) into low-Earth orbit.
Although communications satellites are generally becoming larger, there is still a need for a small launcher to launch other types of satellites. Europe is building a low-cost, solid fuelled rocket called Vega. This will place satellites weighing 300 to 2000 kg into a various polar and low-Earth orbits. Vega’s first launch is planned for the beginning of 2012.
Europe has also agreed with Russia to launch Soyuz from Kourou, Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana, from 2011 onwards. Soyuz is a mid-size rocket that has been used successfully by Russia for many years.
ESA satellites such as Cluster and Mars Express have been launched by Soyuz in recent years. It also launches manned/crewed missions to the International Space Station.