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Russians rockets from European base

world Updated: Jul 26, 2008 14:14 IST
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For 40 years, this base on the coast of French Guiana has been the prestigious symbol of French, and then European, ambitions in space.

Today though the Guiana Space Centre (CSG) is girding for a new era when it will host Russian rockets and engineers who just a short while ago were Europe's space rivals.

On Sunday, a freighter is due to dock in Cayenne bearing a first consignment of 150 containers of equipment to fit out a launch pad at CSG where, from the second half of 2009, the first "European" Soyuz is scheduled to blast into space.

"The challenge will be to put together everything that was made in Russia with what's been built here in Guiana and to ensure that it works," said Jean-Yves Le Gall of Arianespace, the European company that has signed the Soyuz deal.

"All the civil engineering work on the pad will be finished by the end of August and after that, the task will be to install the Russian equipment," said Frederic Munoz, a launch executive with France's National Centre for Space Studies (CNES).

A team of 14 Russian technicians will be working on the first consignment, to be followed by nearly 90 more in the following weeks.

Two more shiploads will arrive by year's end, followed by a fourth next year, which will bring the first rocket. At peak period next year, between 200 and 300 Russians will be on site in Kourou, assembling and testing the equipment.

A tried-and-trusted veteran of the space race, Soyuz is being brought to Kourou to help Arianespace, which markets European's Ariane rocket for satellite launches, fill a gap in its service range.

Its sole vehicle is the Ariane 5 ECA heavy rocket, which has the capacity to place a massive 9.5-tonne payload into geostationary orbit.

Soyuz is the most-used rocket in the history of space

That's fine for multiple satellite launches and big single charges, such as the European Space Agency's robot cargo ship, the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), which this year went on a maiden mission to service the International Space Station (ISS).

But using a rocket this size makes no economic sense for addressing the burgeoning market to launch smaller satellites in single operations.

Soyuz is the most-used rocket in the history of the space, with more than 1,600 launches to its credit.

It will be used in Kourou for launching telecoms satellites of between one and three tonnes.

Soyuz can also be used as a launcher for cargo and people, although there are no plans -- yet -- for using it in these configurations in Kourou. ESA does not have autonomous manned space capability, and its astronauts have to hitch a ride with US and Russian vessels.

At the bottom of Arianespace's product range will be a small rocket called Vega, capable of place 1.5 tonnes into a low orbit of up to 700 kilometres (450 miles). Vega is being built under an ESA programme by the Italian Space Agency (ISA) and Avio SpA of Italy.

In Kourou, the main engineering work has been an assembly hall for the launcher, which is put together horizontally and then raised vertically for blast-off. In contrast, Ariane is constructed vertically.

There is also a command post, protected by a one-metre (3.25-feet) -thick wall in case of any accidental explosion.

Arianespace has shareholders in 10 European countries, most of which are commercial aerospace companies, while the biggest is the CNES, a state-owned institute that owns nearly a third of its shares and also holds responsibility for Kourou. Two-thirds of the base's budget comes from ESA.

Getting approval for an initiative by which a European company, using a European base, will pay Russia to provide it with launch services was not easy.

Arianespace signed a formal agreement with Roskosmos, the Russian Space Agency, in April 2005.

Of the 400 million-euro (632-million-dollar) development cost, 121 million euros has been lent to Arianespace by the European Investment Bank (EIB), the European Union's lending arm.