E urope’s spaceport, after 30 years of being a one-vehicle operation, is two years away from completing new launch pads for the Russian Soyuz and Italian-led Vega rockets, a transition that will place new demands on the facility’s ability to house satellite teams and assure base security.

The new arrivals will move the Guiana Space Center (CSG) from its current sleepy annual cadence of five Ariane 5 launches to a rate that, by 2010, should plateau at 5-6 Ariane 5 vehicles, 2-3 Soyuz rockets and 1-2 Vega liftoffs per year. With almost all Ariane 5 vehicles carrying two satellites each, that will mean processing up to 17 satellites and their engineering teams each year.

The Vega small-satellite launcher is facing a series of engine-firing and other milestones in the coming months that will determine whether its first demonstration flight will occur, as scheduled, in December 2007. The vehicle is new from top to bottom and will be launched from a site where early generation Ariane rockets were operated, limiting the amount of new construction to be done.

Antonio Fabrizi, director of launchers at the European Space Agency (ESA), said test-firing of Vega rocket stages and work on the launch site face substantial development milestones.

“The rocket is perhaps the most interesting part, but the ground infrastructure’s development is also on the critical path for us,” Fabrizi said. “Any substantial delays in development will directly impact the date of the first launch, but for now we are targeting December 2007.”

Key upcoming Vega milestones:

– June 26: A test firing of the Zefiro 23 Vega second-stage engine in Sardinia, Italy.

– July 10: A system design review of the Vega ground installations.

– Nov. 27: A test firing of the P-80 first stage, at a CSG test site here.

– Dec. 16: A second test firing of the Zefiro 9 third stage, in Sardinia.

– Late December: Begin critical design review of full Vega vehicle.

– Early 2007: A second Zefiro 23 test firing and a second firing of the P-80.

Importing Russia’s Soyuz rocket poses an entirely different set of problems. Assuming successful flights of Soyuz vehicles scheduled for July and October from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the vehicle to be operated here starting in late 2008 will have been fully tested. This year’s Soyuz launches from Baikonur will feature a new payload fairing and a redesigned third stage — both of which will be used for operations at Europe’s CSG here.

“One great advantage for us in this project is that even before the launch pad is finished, we should have a launcher that has been qualified for flight,” Jean-Jacques Auffret, Arianespace‘s deputy director of CSG operations, said in May 28 interview at the Soyuz construction site. “It makes our current planning much more credible.”

The Soyuz launch pad is being carved out of the Amazonian forest and the granite crust. The 120-hectare (300-acre) facility is located some 12 kilometers north of all Ariane 5 and Vega rocket operations — in part for security reasons.

Sometime in 2007, a team of about 250 Russians will arrive to perform the finishing work on the launch installation and prepare to operate each Soyuz flight. Teams of translators will be added as the Russian crews are expected to speak little or no English or French.

The size of the planned Russian contingent — 240 for each six-week launch campaign, plus 40 permanent staff at the launch site — has surprised Europ ean officials here. They say that is double the number of people that are needed to launch the much larger Ariane 5 vehicle. But they have ceded to Russian demands in the interests of keeping Soyuz operations as similar as possible to what Russia does in Baikonur and at the northern Russian Plesetsk Cosmodrome.

The modified Soyuz rocket planned for use here will, by virtue of CSG’s proximity to the equator, make it possible for Soyuz launchers to place telecommunications satellites weighing slightly more than 3,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit. That compares with the same vehicle’s capacity of around 2,000 kilograms when operated from Baikonur.

European government and industry officials overseeing the project say work has continued despite occasional obstructions due to technology-transfer concerns. These concerns are high on the agenda of both Europeans and Russians.

The Europeans want to minimize Russian contact with the rest of the launch base and ease the worries of the U.S. government about Russian access to U.S.-built satellites. Most Ariane 5 launches carry U.S.-built spacecraft or satellites containing numerous U.S. parts that are subject to the U.S. International Traffic in Arms export control regime.

The Russians want to limit European access to several key Soyuz technologies as the vehicle is shipped and operated thousands of kilometers from Russian-controlled territory. One example: the special kerosene mixture that powers the Soyuz will not be prepared here, but in Russia. It will accompany the Soyuz vehicles as they travel by rail from Samara, Russia, to St. Petersburg. The rockets will then be loaded onto ships for the long voyage to French Guiana, either directly or via Le Havre.

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