The future launch site for Europe’s adaptation of Russia’s Soyuz rocket is being carved out of the jungle here, with construction crews expected to finish raising part of the land comfortably above sea level by the end of the year.
The effort involves adding some 600,000 cubic meters of sand and 100,000 cubic meters of reddish clay to the swampy area to improve drainage and prevent flooding.
Government and industry officials said the project is not over budget despite a schedule slip that was in part due to the late signing of contracts by European and Russian authorities. Originally scheduled for late 2006, and then early 2008, the first Soyuz launch is now expected in November 2008.
The outlines of what will be a near replica of the Soyuz launch operation in Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan are beginning to take shape.
The entire launch site, located well south of the two other launch complexes at Europe’s Guiana Space Center here, covers 120 hectares (296 acres).
With the ground just 3 meters above sea level, terraces of sand and clay covering 15 hectares had to be erected to raise the ground level. Work began in February 2005 and the landscaping is expected to be finished by early 2006, said Jacques Bertrand of the French space agency, CNES, whose ground-infrastructure division is managing the launch site’s development on behalf of the 17-nation European Space Agency (ESA).
The French engineering and construction firm, Vinci, is scheduled to arrive late this year to begin civil engineering and building construction under a contract valued at 135 million euros ($164 million).
In April 2007, teams of Russian workers will arrive to begin building the system to transport the Soyuz vehicle, which will be integrated horizontally as it is done in Russia, not vertically as European and U.S. rockets are built. The Russian consortium including KB-OM of Moscow won a competitive bid for the work, Bertrand said.
Some 250 Russian workers will be stationed here during the final 18 months of construction. Russian engineers from the TsKB-Progress Soyuz builder in Samara, Russia, and from Lavochkin of Moscow, which builds the vehicle’s Fregat upper stage, will form a permanent rotation of about 150 Russians on station here for each launch, working with about 50 engineers from the Arianespace launch consortium and CNES, according to Patrick Bonguet, director of programs at Evry, France-based Arianespace. The Russian space agency, Roskosmos, coordinated the Russian bidding for the work.
Bonguet and Bertrand said it will take some time before the Russian teams become used to the European safety and security norms, and with the European procedures for the treatment of high-pressure fluid lines, high-voltage electrical systems and other operational aspects that are subject to European work-safety regulations.
Few of the Russians arriving here are expected to speak French or English. “We will have a sizable translation staff,” Bertrand said.
ESA governments in February 2004 agreed to spend 223 million euros to build the Soyuz launch pad. Arianespace, which will operate the Soyuz system at the new Kourou launch facility, has taken out a French government-guaranteed loan from the European Investment Bank for 121 million euros to complete the financing package.
Arianespace is expected to repay the loan from the revenue it receives from Soyuz launch activity in the years ahead.
The Soyuz version to be operated from Europe’s equatorial launch base will be able to lift a 3,000-kilogram satellite into geostationary transfer orbit. Arianespace is expected to charge about $40 million per Soyuz launch. Soyuz will complement the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket and permit the launch of European government civil and military payloads that are too small for Ariane 5.
Soyuz also is sized to lift commercial communications satellites in the lighter end of the market, such as those built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. How much Soyuz will compete for business that might otherwise have gone to Ariane 5 is unknown.
European government authorities think the business risks for Arianespace are more than offset by the future benefits of having the use of one of the world’s most reliable launch systems, and one that ultimately could be used to launch European astronauts.