For 40 years, this base on the coast of French Guiana has been the prestigious symbol of French, and then European, ambitions in space. But today, the Guiana Space Center 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.
A freighter was due to dock in Cayenne today, bearing a first consignment of 150 containers of equipment to fit out a launch pad at the center, where, from the second half of next year, 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 Center for Space Studies.
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 the end of the year, 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 Europe’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.
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.
But using a rocket this size makes no economic sense for the burgeoning market to launch smaller satellites in single operations.
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 700km. Vega is being built under an ESA program by the Italian Space Agency 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 1m-thick wall in case of any accidental explosion.
Arianespace has shareholders in 10 European countries, most of which are commercial aerospace companies.