LE BOURGET, France — Europe’s version of Russia’s Soyuz rocket was declared ready for flight in May but will not make its first launch until late October for reasons that are not clear even to those directly involved in the program, government and industry officials said.

All agree that the months-long gap in a program that is already three years behind schedule and substantially overbudget is not an optimal scenario, and that the down time has something to do with what satellites were available, and when. Beyond that, opinions differ.

Several industry officials said the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Commission wanted the inaugural Soyuz flight from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport to have maximum political and public-relations impact by carrying the first two of Europe’s Galileo navigation, positioning and timing satellites.

That is the plan, with a launch scheduled for Oct. 20.

But ESA officials, who have been given management authority over Galileo’s development by the European Commission, deny that this is the case.

“I can tell you very clearly that neither ESA nor the commission ever pressured anyone to have Galileo as the first flight,” ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said. “We certainly have full confidence in the Soyuz rocket, but the second or third launch would have suited us just fine.”

Jean-Yves Le Gall, chief executive of the Arianespace launch consortium, to which ESA handed over responsibility for Soyuz following a launch dress rehearsal in May, said the problem is that no suitable satellite customers manifested themselves for a launch before the two Galileo satellites.

At one point, Arianespace had planned to launch the Hylas 1 consumer broadband satellite, owned by Avanti Communications of London, on the inaugural Soyuz. But when the Soyuz program encountered further delays, pushing the inaugural launch from 2009 to 2010 and then 2011, Avanti agreed to ride into orbit as the second passenger aboard Arianespace’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket. That launch occurred in November.

Arianespace made inquiries among its customers about a Hylas replacement for the inaugural Soyuz, but none were found, Le Gall said.

The French government is the customer for the second Soyuz launch, which is now scheduled to occur either late this year or early in 2012, depending on the technical results of the late-October flight.

This second Soyuz mission is scheduled to carry six satellites in total: A French civil-military Pleiades high-resolution optical Earth observation satellite, four French military Elisa electronics-intelligence satellites to listen in on ground-based radars and Chile’s SSOT Earth observation satellite for Chilean military and civil government authorities.

Following multiple delays, the Pleiades satellite has been declared ready for launch for several months. Chile’s SSOT satellite, carrying a 1.4-meter black-and-white imager and a 5.8-meter color imager, was built by Astrium Satellites of France and announced ready for launch in early 2010, as scheduled.

That leaves the Elisa quartet.

While no serious delays have been announced for Elisa, the program is nonetheless behind its original schedule and would not be ready for a mid-2010 launch, said Yannick d’Escatha, president of the French space agency, CNES.

In a June 20 briefing here during the Paris air show, d’Escatha denied that France did not want to risk Elisa and Pleiades, equipped with a 70-centimeter imager, on the first flight of Soyuz. He said the Pleiades/Elisa/SSOT launch, to place satellites into low Earth orbit, uses a different launcher and down-range-tracking system configuration when compared to the launch, into medium Earth orbit, of the Galileo navigation satellites.

D’Escatha said a decision on which launcher and tracking-station configuration would be used had to be made months before the launch. At the time a decision was needed, he said, it was considered that the Galileo satellites should be assigned the launch because the satellites and their ground infrastructure were considered more likely to be ready.

D’Escatha said CNES, which has had a prime responsibility for the construction of a Soyuz launch pad in French Guiana, would not have hesitated to put Pleiades and Elisa aboard the October Soyuz flight if the development schedule had permitted it.



European Soyuz Must Pass Final Exam Before October Debut

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.