Launch rate set to skyrocket at French Guiana spaceport
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: October 26, 2011
The introduction of the Soyuz and Vega rockets at Europe's spaceport in the Amazon jungle presents a demanding juggling act for managers trying to balance needs for three very different launch vehicles sharing a stretch of the French Guiana coastline.
The 270-square-mile Guiana Space Center, jointly funded by the French government and the European Space Agency, has been home to the Ariane rocket family since 1979. But instead of hosting launches six or seven times a year, the spaceport's launch rate could soon double to a dozen flights annually.
But two launchers, the veteran Russian Soyuz and the new Italian-led solid-fueled Vega, are now debuting at the spaceport. The first Soyuz rocket launched from French Guiana successfully delivered two Galileo navigation satellites into orbit Friday.
The Ariane 5 rocket, the sole tenant at the Guiana Space Center since 2003, is standing down from flying until early March, partially because of a lack of satellites for the dual-payload launcher. But the lull in Ariane 5 launches also allows spaceport officials to focus on the debut of the Soyuz and Vega.
Between the Ariane, Soyuz and Vega programs, Europe will be able to launch heavy, medium-class and small satellites for a number of applications, including communications, navigation, Earth observation, space science and exploration.
The Guiana Space Center, known by its French acronym CSG, receives two-thirds of its funding from the European Space Agency. The remaining third is supplied by the French government.
"Exploiting three launchers from CSG will mean there will be a number of constraints, something we're not used to," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA's director general. "So far, we've only been launching Ariane launchers one after the other. Now, we're going to have to manage the operation of three launchers at the same time from the CSG."
Bernard Chemoul, the deputy director of CSG for the French space agency, said initially there will be four weeks between launches of Ariane, Soyuz and Vega from the European spaceport.
"We are preparing the launch range, telemetry, radar networks and safety because the launchers are different and the safety procedures must be adapted to the different launch systems," Chemoul told Spaceflight Now.
The preparations have been in work for several years, but only now are they being put to the test.
"Very quickly, we will be under four weeks between two launches," Chemoul said. "It depends on the adaptation we need between one flight and the other. If we have a very big change between two launches, we will have a very different network of telemetry stations. That takes time. If we have the same network, we can reduce the time between two launches."
For Friday's Soyuz launch, officials deployed a Belgian ship in the Atlantic Ocean to receive telemetry from the rocket during its ascent into space. Launchings to the east or north from the spaceport will require different tracking networks.
Bruno Gerard, Arianespace's vice president of the Soyuz program, said he hopes to ultimately achieve a launch cadence with as little as two weeks between flights, assuming customers have payloads ready.
According to Gerard, the most significant conflict is between the Soyuz and the Ariane 5. The rockets share facilities to produce liquid oxygen propellant, tracking and radar infrastructure, and spacecraft processing teams.
"We will try to reduce the time between two launches, Chemoul said. "It's a high challenge because we have to learn about Soyuz operations, and that will take time. We will learn and try to reduce the time for preparation of the launcher and so on. I hope that after doing some launches of Soyuz, we will be able to reduce the time of preparation and increase the launch rate."
The Soyuz launch pad, known as ELS in French, was built about 6.2 miles northwest of the Ariane 5 launch zone. Authorities decided on the Soyuz pad's location to ensure a suitable geological site for the facility's deep flame pit, which was carved out of granite bedrock.
The distance between the Soyuz and Ariane launch pads also reduces interference between the rocket's operations, but the programs share tracking sites, propellant plants and European management teams. A separate Russian crew assembles the rocket and controls the countdown.
Although the Vega and Ariane 5 launch pads are much closer together -- just a half-mile apart -- spaceport officials foresee fewer challenges there because the solid-fueled Vega launcher does not use liquid propellants. And the Vega is only expected to launch one or two times each year.
Officials expect three or four Soyuz flights and five-to-six Ariane missions each year from Guiana Space Center.
"We're going to have a fantastic increase in the capabilities for access to space from CSG, but, of course, there will be a learning curve on how we're going to use and operate these three launchers simultaneously," Dordain said.
The next Soyuz launch from French Guiana is scheduled for Dec. 16 with France's Pleiades 1 satellite, which will supply civilian and European military users with high-resolution optical imagery.
The second Soyuz to launch from French Guiana will also haul four ELISA electronic intelligence satellites into orbit for the French defense procurements agency. Chile's SSOT remote sensing and mapping satellite will also be aboard the launch, which will deposit the payloads in polar orbit.