The weather at the launch site of Europe's 750km2 large spaceport Kourou in French Guiana ‘on the morning of 4 June 1996 was acceptable for a launch that day, and presented no obstacle to the transfer of the launcher to the launch pad. In particular, there was no risk of lightning since the strength of the electric field measured at the launch site was negligible. The only uncertainty concerned fulfilment [sic] of the visibility criteria’
(Lions et al., 1996).

It was the day for which the maiden flight of a new rocket generation was scheduled, Europe's Ariane 5. ‘The countdown, which also comprises
the filling of the core stage, went smoothly until H0-7 minutes when
the launch was put on hold since the visibility criteria were not met at the opening of the launch window (08h35 local time). Visibility conditions improved as forecast and the launch was initiated at H0 = 09h 33mn 59s local time (=12h 33mn 59s UT). Ignition of the Vulcain engine and the two solid boosters was nominal, as was lift-off’ (Lions et al., 1996).

‘Tous les paramètres impulsives sont normaux, la trajectoire est normal (all the thrust parameters are normal, the trajectory is normal)’, stated the Director of Operations H0+54 seconds after take off, but at this point, things had already gone wrong (Ariane 5 rocket launch explosion, 2015): 'The vehicle performed a nominal flight until approximately H0+37 seconds. Shortly after that time, it suddenly veered off its flight path, broke up, and exploded. […] The self-destruction of the launcher occurred near to the launch pad, at an altitude of approximately 4000m. Therefore, all the launcher debris fell back onto the ground, scattered over an area of approximately 12km2 east of the launch pad. Recovery of material proved difficult, however, since this area is nearly all mangrove swamp or savanna.' (Lions et al., 1996)
Nevertheless, it was possible for the French Foreign Legion, who provide security for the Spaceport (Armée de Terre Actu, 2015), to retrieve substantial parts of the debris.

Among the salvaged debris of Ariane 5 Flight 501 were its cargo, the four Cluster satellites that were supposed to go on their mission to analyze the Earth's magnetosphere. Considering the overall payload of 4800kg, 7540 km distance and 19years of time difference quite some pieces have made it into the archive of the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) and are still there. Persevering in light of this accident, the Ariane 5 Team as well as the Cluster Mission Team had the chance to launch four new Cluster satellites into their orbit in mid 2000.

‘This disaster shuttered the hopes and dreams of all those who had been working hard to make that mission come true, but 4 years later this program was reborn of the aches of the first one, and 4 brand new satellites were ready to be launched. 15 years after that, this mission, that had been designed for only 2 years, is still healthy and producing valuable scientific measurements of the Solar Wind's interaction with the Earth's magnetosphere.

While celebrating this milestone, we realised it was time to dignify the fate of the first Cluster and time to bring out the positive things that can emerge from disaster. Pieces of the debris that were recovered from the swamps and mangroves of French Guiana are still displayed in glass cabinets at ESA, but are doomed to fall in oblivion. A chance talk with a friend got us in contact with artist Sascha Mikloweit who had previous experience in working with explosion debris. An opportunity appeared and in a short time it materialised into an artistic commission […]‘ (Sousa, 2015)  

Special Thanks:

To Bruno Teixeira de Sousa (Spacecraft Operations Manager Cluster II Mission) and the whole Cluster II Mission Team who actively supported this project with their knowledge, competence and hospitality.
Thanks to Daso Franke for reworking the Cluster II data sonification of Prof. Donald A. Gurnett –
The Project has been generously supported by:
SilverFast – LaserSoft Imaging AG –
Krügercolor – Dr. Jürgen Krüger –
ARNO EICHHORN | limited edition prints –


Ariane 5 rocket launch explosion, 2015. [Video] [Online] Available at:
[Accessed 21 August 2015]

Armée de Terre Actu: Opération TITAN, 2015. [Video] [Online] Available at:
[Accessed 12 October 2015]

Lions, J. L., et al., 1996. Ariane 5 - Flight 501 Failure Full Report. [Online] Available at:
[Accessed 21 August 2015]

Sousa, B., 2015. Introduction to the European Space Agency’s 15y Cluster Mission Artist Commission. Darmstadt: ESA. (forthcoming)