LE BOURGET, France — European governments’ $800 million investment in importing Russia’s Soyuz rocket to Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport faces several weeks of grilling by outside experts starting in mid-July to determine whether the system is ready for flight.

A Qualification Committee composed of experts from the French and European space agencies and from Russian industry — none of them with direct involvement in the project — will judge the project’s fitness in a series of reviews to begin July 19 and to last until mid-September.

Without clearance from this committee, the Soyuz rocket will not make its scheduled Oct. 20 inaugural flight, during which it is scheduled to carry two European Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellites.

Marie Jasinski, head of the Soyuz program at the French space agency, CNES, conceded it might sound odd that the Qualification Committee’s evaluation is beginning after the “keys” to Soyuz were transferred from CNES and the European Space Agency (ESA) to the Arianespace commercial launch consortium during a well-publicized May 7 ceremony at the French Guiana launch facility.

The transfer ceremony occurred after a dry run of Soyuz liftoff that occurred the first week of May and included the simulation of a launch countdown and the post-liftoff tracking of a telecommunications satellite.

In a briefing here June 21 during the Paris air show, Jasinski said the Soyuz program, in which the French government has financed about 55 percent of the total cost, was organized so that what she termed the “Soyuz final exams” would occur after the simulated launch and the transfer of responsibility to Evry, France-based Arianespace.

“You can look at the Qualification Committee and our presentation to it as a final exam during which we will be asked to demonstrate the validity of what we have done over the past six years,” Jasinski said. “The committee is made up of outside people, and they will be examining the entire program, with a special focus on the differences between the [Guiana Space Center] and the traditional Soyuz launch sites at Baikonur and Plesetsk.”

The Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia have been launching Soyuz rockets for decades.

Rocket experts agree that Soyuz is in a class by itself compared to other vehicles, having launched more astronauts, space-station cargo and satellites than any other rocket. The 1,773rd Soyuz liftoff occurred June 27 from the Plesetsk facility.

Despite this heritage, the vehicle has been modified to comply with French and European flight-safety regulations for its operations from the Guiana Space Center. A new flight-safety system has been added to it to permit the rocket’s self-destruction in flight if its on-board computer senses a wrong flight trajectory.

An S-band telemetry system has been added for tracking, and numerous small modifications have been made to adapt to the equatorial climate of French Guiana, which bears scant resemblance to the climate of either Baikonur or Plesetsk, especially as regards humidity.

Transferring the rocket’s upper composite — which comprises the Fregat upper stage and payload fairing — will be done in an air-conditioned environment to reduce exposure to high heat. And unlike Russia’s traditional horizontal integration, Soyuz’s fairing and payload will be added to the upright Soyuz.

The 800,000-kilogram mobile gantry — whose construction delays in Russia is perhaps the single biggest cause of the program’s three-year delay — is the most visible example of the differences between Soyuz operations in French Guiana and those in Russia and Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz vehicle to be flown from the Guiana Space Center is the 2-1b model, which uses a variant of the Russian RD-0124 engine as the upper stage. In this configuration, the rocket will be able to carry telecommunications satellites weighing up to 3,200 kilograms to geostationary-transfer orbit, the traditional drop-off point for communications satellites.

The Soyuz 2-1a version, operated from the European spaceport, will be able to launch a 2,700-kilogram satellite into geostationary-transfer orbit.

The same vehicle operated from Baikonur can carry no more than 1,700 kilograms to that orbit because of Baikonur’s location so far from the equator. It is one reason why Soyuz rarely launches telecommunications satellites. Even small telecommunications satellites usually weigh far more than 1,700 kilograms when fueled and ready for launch.

This difference, combining the more-powerful upper stage with the advantages of an equatorial launch site, was key to ESA governments’ adoption, at the request of France, of the Soyuz program in 2003.

Jasinski said the delays in the construction of the all-new Soyuz launch site and preparing the vehicle for operations has resulted in a 36 percent increase in program costs. Instead of the 344 million euros foreseen, the Soyuz program through 2010 will have cost 467.9 million euros. Both figures are tabulated in 2002 economic conditions to give investing governments a clear measure of price escalation.

Assuming an average 2.5 percent annual inflation rate, the figure in 2010 would be 567 million euros, or $822 million at current exchange rates.

Jasinski said that the launch campaign for the October inaugural flight can start in August as foreseen even though the Qualification Committee will not have finished its review until September.

Similarly, she said, the committee’s evaluation could have started earlier if the first Soyuz launch had been scheduled for this summer.



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French Prime Minister Says European Soyuz Will Complement, not Compete with, Ariane 5

European Version of Soyuz Completes Dry Run at Guiana Space Center


Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.