KOUROU, French Guiana — Plans to operate Russia’s Soyuz rocket commercially from Europe’s Guiana Space Center here starting in late 2008 face two key milestones in the coming weeks: the signing of a technology-security agreement with the Russian government, and a contract with Russian Soyuz manufacturers for the production of the first four Soyuz launch vehicles, European government and industry officials said.
Integrating and operating the Soyuz vehicle here will require a sharing of technology secrets and security protocols that may be unprecedented in the space industry, an industry in which space hardware is still viewed as a strategic asset by the major space powers.
France and Russia already have agreed to divide equally the role of “launching state,” meaning they will share the responsibility for any accidents that occur from Soyuz operations. And while the Russian side is insisting on keeping some secrets from the French — the ingredients of Soyuz kerosene fuel is being kept as secret as the Coca-Cola formula, for example — the demands of joint operations will make it difficult to maintain even these barriers.
“Because we are on French territory, France has obligations relating to safety and security issues,” Michel Eymard, director of launchers at the French space agency, CNES, said Nov. 30. “We cannot be mere spectators to the operations; we have to be full actors, and this means sharing details. It is not easy for the Russians to do this. We understand that, but both sides are aware of what is necessary. Having said that, I am sure there are difficulties that will need to be resolved once the Russian teams begin arriving.”
Some 240 Russian engineers are expected to arrive here in mid-2007 to begin preparing the launch table and other infrastructure that will put the finishing touches on the Soyuz launch pad that is being erected here. The laborious task of digging a 28-meter-deep, 130-meter-wide flame pit through the granite crust is about completed, and the cement foundations of the launcher integration building and other facilities at the site are being poured.
A first launch, of a yet-undetermined satellite, is scheduled for November 2008. Thecommercial-launch consortium already has entered Soyuz into its product catalogue and has announced its intentions to sell launches to European governments for 40 million euros ($52 million) apiece. Two contracts have been signed, both with CNES, for the launches of the two French Pleiades Earth observation satellites in late 2009 and early 2011. Arianespace’s current Soyuz business plan assumes three Soyuz launches per year — for government payloads and one commercial satellite. Notable future prospects include the 30-satellite satellite-communications constellation.
Commercial customers with small telecommunications satellites will be part of a separate pricing policy related to the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket, according to Michel Bartolomey, Arianespace’s director of operations here. Depending on vehicle availability, a commercial telecommunications satellite could be launched as one of two passengers aboard the proven Ariane 5, or as a solo customer aboard the Soyuz.
The Soyuz 2-1b rocket that will be the principal version used here is expected to make its first launch in late December from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Soyuz’s home port. Operated from the equatorial spaceport here, the rocket can lift a telecommunications satellite weighing nearly 3,100 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit.
The French government already has approved the security arrangements for Soyuz, but the same security conventions have yet to be signed in Moscow. CNES President Yannick d’Escatha said Nov. 30 that Russia has not indicated any special problems, but that the agreement needs to make the round of the necessary Russian government ministries.
CNES also needs an umbrella security arrangement to continue work on a bilateral project to study future launch vehicles, d’Escatha said.
European Space Agency () governments gave formal approval to the Soyuz project in 2004. Led by France, ESA member nations were told that importing Soyuz was a necessary condition to secure a Russian partnership in next-generation rockets. ESA agreed to spend 223 million euros to build the Soyuz launch facility. Arianespace subscribed to a low-interest loan with the European Investment Bank totaling 121 million euros to purchase the Soyuz launch table and to help finance development of the upgraded Soyuz to be used here.
But so far, no contracts have been signed for the purchase of Soyuz rockets. Bartolomey said a 2002 protocol signed between Arianespace and the Russian Space Agency, Roskosmos, makes reference to Soyuz vehicle costs. But it is not clear whether this accord sets ceilings on Soyuz vehicle prices. Bartolomey said a contract for the first four Soyuz rockets is expected to be signed in the coming weeks. “Our work with Starsem has given us a pretty clear idea of Soyuz costs, so we don’t anticipate any real difficulties,” Bartolomey said Nov. 30.
Starsem S.A. is the French-Russian joint venture that commercializes Soyuz launches from Baikonur. Arianespace is a Starsem shareholder.