Launches from French Guiana suspended due to coronavirus

File photo of an Ariane 5 rocket on its launch pad in French Guiana. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – P. Baudon

Launch campaigns at the European-run spaceport in French Guiana — a home base for Ariane 5, Soyuz and Vega rockets — have been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, Arianespace said Monday.

An Italian-made Vega rocket and a Russian Soyuz booster were scheduled to take off later this month and in April. Those missions will be postponed, and the suspension of operations at the Guiana Space Center, located on the northeastern coast of South America, will likely prompt delays of downstream missions from the launch base.

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need to fully implement the measures decided by the French government, launch campaigns under way at the Guiana Space Center (CSG) in French Guiana have been suspended,” Arianespace said Monday. “These launch preparations will resume as soon as allowed by health conditions.

“This exceptional measure is designed to protect the health of employees and the local population, while also maintaining the security needed to prepare for scheduled launches,” Arianespace said.

Arianespace, the French launch services provider, started the year with up to 22 missions scheduled in 2020 from launch pads in French Guiana, Kazakhstan and Russia.

The Guiana Space Center is run by CNES, the French space agency.

The next mission scheduled to take off from French Guiana was set for launch March 23. An Italian-built Vega launcher — the smallest of the three rockets in Arianespace’s fleet — is stacked on its launch pad in French Guiana for liftoff with 44 small satellites from numerous government and commercial customers around the world.

A Soyuz rocket was scheduled to launch April 14 with the Falcon Eye 2 military surveillance satellite for the United Arab Emirates, a mission that was supposed to blast off earlier this month but was delayed by concerns about the readiness of the launcher’s Fregat upper stage.

“Arianespace, French space agency CNES and all companies involved at CSG are currently overseeing operations to place launchers and satellites in safe standby condition, in line with standard procedures,” Arianespace said Monday.

File photo of a Soyuz rocket on its launch pad in French Guiana. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – JM Guillon

Although it is not clear how long launch operations will be suspended in French Guiana, a lengthy shutdown could impact plans to launch the new European Vega C and Ariane 6 rockets late this year.

Last week, the CEO of Avio — the Italian company that builds the Vega rocket — said launch preparations for the next Vega launch were continuing at the spaceport in French Guiana. Manufacturing operations at Avio’s facility in Colleferro, Italy, near Rome, were also continuing as much as possible, with some officials working remotely and plant technicians spread among multiple shifts to reduce the density of workers inside the factory.

But the number of COVID-19 cases in European countries has soared since last week, with Italy the hardest-hit country. As of Sunday, Italy reported more than 24,700 confirmed cases, and more than 1,800 deaths.

In French Guiana, there were six confirmed cases of the viral disease listed on the website of the Pan American Health Organization as of Monday.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.