After reaching a peak altitude of 222 km the Ariane 5 launcher with Intelsat 29e starts to lose altitude. What is the reason for this trajectory?

Youtube video


Paper on Ariane 5

  • $\begingroup$ This can also be due to the oblate shape of the Earth, a polar orbit that is perfectly circular will have an oscillating altitude due to the change in Earth's radius! $\endgroup$ Jan 28, 2016 at 6:24
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianLynch But this was a launch from French Guyana towards GEO, that is pretty close to the equator for the whole launch $\endgroup$ Jan 28, 2016 at 6:57
  • $\begingroup$ It would be great if someone could map that graph so instead of a flat horizontal axis it had the corresponding curved segment of the earth. $\endgroup$
    – pjc50
    Jan 28, 2016 at 10:51

2 Answers 2


Altitude drops like that are common when the orbital stage has a high-efficiency, low-thrust engine.

It takes a few minutes for the upper stage to bring the craft up to orbital speed. During that period, the craft is indeed starting to fall back towards Earth. The rocket's travel over the curvature of the Earth contributes an effective altitude gain that increases as the rocket's speed increases, slowing the fall. At circular orbit speed, the fall and the curvature cancel out exactly.

The lower the acceleration of the stage that does the orbital insertion, the more dramatic the fall is.

In this case, the HM-7B engine with a thrust of 67kN is pushing the 19 ton ESC-A second stage -- mostly fuel -- plus more than 7 tons of payload. This yields roughly 0.25 g of acceleration at the start of the burn, increasing to something like 0.65 g at the end.

This is in contrast to something like Falcon 9, where the second stage has an initial acceleration around 0.75g, increasing to 3g or so as fuel runs out. That would produce a much shallower dip, if any.


We know that the tough part of getting to space isn't getting there, it's going fast enough to stay there.

enter image description here

One of the key reasons is that the rocket is concentrating more on gaining horizontal speed than vertical height. So the rocket will eventually start being pulled down vertically. The atmosphere is such at that altitude that the rocket won't be affected by it much, so it continues to function the same. Eventually, when orbital speeds are approached, the small vertical motion will keep the spacecraft accelerating upward, in addition to having the nearly orbital horizontal speed. And then orbit is achieved, with ever increasing vertical altitude.

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    $\begingroup$ "There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. … Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties" :) $\endgroup$
    – PTwr
    Jan 28, 2016 at 0:24
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    $\begingroup$ I had forgotten that quote, hilarious. Could there be a meta post on Space SE to accumulate such things, rather like the infographics one? meta.space.stackexchange.com/questions/472/… $\endgroup$
    – Puffin
    Jan 28, 2016 at 12:41

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