Skip to main content

1st Soyuz Launch from French Guiana May Be Pushed to 2010

The first flight of Russia's Soyuz medium-lift rocket from Europe's spaceport here still is pegged for the second halfof 2009 but government and industry officials say privately that an early 2010date looks more likely.

They said much will dependon the exact arrival dates of the ocean-going vessels carrying Russian-builtSoyuz launch pad gear, and how well the 200-250 Russian pad constructionworkers, expected to begin arriving in late August, adapt to their tightlysequestered life here.

Officials from theArianespace commercial launch consortium say that despite the delay in Soyuzoperations from the Guiana Space Center — the first flight is one year lateassuming the late-2009 date holds — no Soyuz customers are likely to beaffected. Arianespaceof Evry, France, will market the Soyuz along with the European-built Ariane5.

"Obviously we areworking as hard as possible to get Soyuz operational as quickly as we can, butthe fact is that the delay can be absorbed by placing larger Soyuz payloadsonto the Ariane 5 rocket, and the smaller ones on the Soyuz vehicle we use withStarsem from the Baikonur Cosmodrome," said Michel Bartolomey, director ofGuiana Space Center operations for Arianespace. Starsem SA is a French-Russianjoint venture led by Arianespace that markets commercial Soyuz launches fromBaikonur.

The heavy-lift Ariane 5rocket is expected to divide with Soyuz the Arianespace bookedtelecommunications satellites weighing 3,000 kilograms or less. Satellites muchheavier than that would be directed to Ariane 5, which launches two satellitesat a time. Lighter spacecraft, such as those for Europe's Galileo satellitenavigation constellation and the mobile communications constellation owned byGlobalstar Inc. of Milpitas, Calif., can be launched from the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodromein Kazakhstan, Soyuz's traditional home.

The arrival of Russianhardware and personnel to complete the Soyuz launch pad will put unprecedentedstresses on local operations here and require teams of interpreters and abolstered police force to smooth out potential rough spots, officials here saidin July 20-22 interviews during a meeting of European space ministers.

The Russian teams will besequestered some 13 kilometers from Ariane 5 operations and will be staying innearby Sinnamary and barred from most visits to the Ariane 5 launch site in theinterests of security.

Similarly, the Russianteams have declined to share the formula for Soyuz kerosene fuel, which thuswill be shipped from Russia, along with individual rockets, to the launch padhere.

The Soyuz integrationhall will likewise be off-limits to non-Russian personnel except on specialoccasions. "When we say this is a Russian operation, we mean it,"Jean-Marc Astorg, head of the Soyuz in Guiana project at the French spaceagency, CNES, said during a July 22 briefing at the Soyuz launch site. "Non-Russianpersonnel will not be allowed in except under escort."

The first of threevessels containing Soyuz launch pad sections was scheduled to arrive July 27.On board is a service cabin from where launch preparation teams can work untiljust before launch. The first 15 Russian Soyuz construction workers wereexpected to be here by then as well.

A second marine vessel isscheduled to arrive in October or November, to be followed by a third shiptoward the end of the year with the mobile gantry, a 60-meter-high structurethat permits workers to access the Soyuz vehicle on the launch pad once it hasbeen moved into vertical position.

The gantry's constructionand delivery are months behind schedulefollowing the financial collapse of its Moscow-area builder and the attemptedseizure of the company's plant by creditors. The Russian space agency,Roskosmos, stepped in to restore order to the work flow, but gantry developmentis now distributed among three sites in the region, said Astorg, who visits themanufacturing teams twice a month to monitor progress.

Eighty additional Russianlaunch pad construction workers are scheduled to arrive in the coming fourmonths, with the total team to reach up to 250 at its peak in mid-2009.

Local officials here sayfrankly they are not sure what to expect from the Russians, who will be givenspecial cards they can use at the Sinnamary restaurant. One official said aformer French Legionnaire of Russian nationality has been hired to assure that,during their free time, the Russians are provided with sports and otheractivities.

This official said theSinnamary law enforcement contingent is being expanded with a new building toensure that contact between the Russians and the local population does notcreate friction on Saturday nights.

Astorg said theequatorial environment at the center likely will require some adaptation by theRussian teams. "Working on a reflective rooftop in 100 degree heat andhigh humidity — we have trouble finding anyone who can do it other than theBrazilians," Astorg said.

While the project'sdelays would argue in favor of a night shift, such shifts were sharply cut backduring construction of the non-Russian buildings after workers were strickenwith papillonite, or lepidopterism, a skin infection caused by nocturnalbutterflies.

In most people, symptomsare limited to a itching that can last for a week. But others suffer allergicreactions. Mosquitoes are another problem that make work after sundowndifficult, Astorg said.

The Soyuzat the Guiana Space Center program was agreed to by the European Space Agencyin 2002, with France taking a 63 percent share of the capital investment of 344million euros. With inflation, that figure is now estimated at 400 millioneuros ($634 million). Arianespace is financing 121 million euros of this sumthrough a loan from the European Investment Bank that was guaranteed by theFrench government and will be repaid over a decade from launch fee revenue.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Charles Q. Choi
Charles Q. Choi

Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for and Live Science. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica. Visit him at