European Soyuz Debut Delayed into 2010

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LE BOURGET, France — Continued delays in the development in Russia of a mobile gantry for the Soyuz rocket system to be launched from Europe’s spaceport have further postponed the inaugural flight of the vehicle by several months, to February 2010 at the earliest, according to European government and industry officials.

The delays have thrown into question which satellite will be the first to fly atop the Europeanized Soyuz. Even so, the European Space Agency (ESA) on June 16 contracted with launch services provider Arianespace for two Soyuz launches in 2010 for Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation constellation.

Each Soyuz will carry two 750-kilogram Galileo satellites into medium Earth orbit at around 23,600 kilometers in altitude. The four spacecraft are part of what is called the In-Orbit Validation phase of Galileo.

Officials said the mobile gantry remains the key obstacle to the near-term schedule for the European version of Soyuz. Once its development is complete, the 60-meter-tall structure must be dismantled and prepared for shipment by land to Saint Petersburg, Russia, then placed onto a boat for ocean transport to the Guiana Space Center, Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana.

Upon arrival at the equatorial site — in August, according to current plans — the gantry will be installed at the new Soyuz launch pad, whose other major elements have already been completed. What will follow is a series of tests of the entire launch system, to continue through October. The first two Soyuz vehicles are expected to arrive at the spaceport in November, according to Arianespace.

Until the most recent delay that pushed the inaugural flight into 2010, the first passenger for the new Soyuz system was expected to be the German Defense Ministry’s Satcom-Bw military telecommunications satellite.

Two nearly identical Satcom-Bw satellites are under construction, and the German Defense Ministry’s arrangement with Satcom-Bw prime contractor Astrium Services requires the first satellite be launched by next spring.

Officials said it remains unclear whether Satcom-Bw will be able to wait for Soyuz to be available, or will instead launch as a co-passenger aboard the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket, which is operated from a separate site at the Guiana Space Center.

Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said June 16 that the company expects to conduct three or four Soyuz launches from the French Guiana facility in 2010, including one to geostationary transfer orbit, the destination of most telecommunications spacecraft. In addition to the two Galileo launches, Soyuz is expected to be used in 2010 to launch the first of two Pleiades high-resolution optical Earth observation satellites for the French government.