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Last Updated: Friday, 7 March 2008, 15:50 GMT
European spaceport's sky-high ambition
By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Ariane 5 rocket (J Wallace)
Jean Yves Le Gall has a grand plan for Kourou

Jean Yves Le Gall is looking into a huge hole.

He is content, however, because this is just the right kind of depression compared with the one his Arianespace company was contemplating just a few years ago.

This is the fire bowl, recently dug from granite, that will deflect the exhaust plume and noise away from a Soyuz rocket as the Russian vehicle lifts clear of the launch gantry on its maiden voyage from the Kourou spaceport next year.

It is all part of the grand plan to provide the complete package at Europe's launch complex in French Guiana - any payload to any orbit.

The portfolio will include Soyuz, a medium-class launcher; the company's workhorse heavy-lift vehicle, the Ariane 5; and a soon to debut mini-rocket known as Vega.

The satellite industry likes the prospect of it all and has given Arianespace a bulging order book; the French-run business has posted sales of just under one billion euros for the past year.

It is all a far cry from May 2003 when a flat market and the disastrous failure of an Ariane vehicle in flight had brought the company to its knees.

The 'reinvention'

European ministers and rocket manufacturer EADS had to put together a financial rescue package. The recapitalisation and reorganisation of the launcher programme certainly had the desired effect.

Ariane 5 (AFP)
The Ariane 5 has been booked for some major science missions
Arianespace has now a dominant position in a commercial sector buoyed by telecom companies desperate to get more spacecraft in orbit to deliver, in particular, high-definition TV and internet services; and that workhorse, the Ariane 5, is galloping a treat.

"I consider that there are two periods in the lifetime of Ariane 5," explains Le Gall, the chairman and CEO of Arianespace.

"The first one was the debut of the launcher between 1996 and 2002, and it was quite a difficult period because in a total of 14 flights we had four failures.

"Since then I like to say we have reinvented the Ariane system, in particular with a completely new approach to quality. Since 2002, we have had [22] flights and zero failures," he tells BBC News.

This year, the Ariane 5 expects to fly seven times; next year it should launch eight times.

Complete copy

Soyuz services at the rocket's traditional base, the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, are sold by the Arianespace subsidiary Starsem. The launcher will continue to fly from there, but bringing the vehicle to Kourou will give it an additional lift - literally.

Rockets that launch closest to the equator benefit from a slingshot effect as they leave that part of the Earth's surface which is moving fastest. Soyuz, merely by blasting off from Kourou, can get a 50% increase in performance with no technical modifications.

Russian teams will move into the site to install their equipment

A piece of jungle has been cleared at the northern end of the Guianese base for a Soyuz pad and vehicle integration buildings. Some 200 Russian systems engineers and other staff will move in this year to finish off the basic infrastructure put in place by local construction teams.

"The complete facility covers 120 hectares," explains Michel Kesdemen, who leads the Soyuz construction project.

"We needed a year to make the carneau and had to cut out 250,000 cubic metres of material.

"The gantry is an iron structure and the Soyuz will be erected on it.

"Each time I have had the opportunity to participate in the first launch after installation. This occurred for Ariane 4 and Ariane 5; and now with the Soyuz launcher. Each time it is very exciting because it is the conclusion of many years' work."

Humans must wait

The facilities will be a facsimile of Baikonur, right down to the approximately 150m-wide, 30m-deep bowl. By making them a perfect copy, Soyuz can get straight down to business without the need to trial systems with test launches.

Contracts have been signed for the first launches; rockets for future launches are actively being discussed.

Kourou map (BBC)
First French rockets were launched from Algeria
On Algerian independence, operations moved to Kourou
In 1971, the European Eldo rocket project moved in
With Esa's creation, the Ariane programme was initiated
Ariane 1 first flew in 1979; Ariane 5 launched first in 1996
Kourou is run by Arianespace, a Cnes/EADS subsidiary
The company is linked to Esa through a convention
Arianespace has launched 2/3 of commercial payloads
For the moment, however, one important operation at Baikonur will not be moving to Kourou - that of human flights. Soyuz is currently the "taxi service" that transports new crews to the International Space Station (ISS) and this role will take on an added significance when the US shuttle is retired in 2010.

In the following years, the Russian system will become the only way of getting to the orbiting platform until the Americans come back online with their new Orion crew ship.

But the prospect of cosmonauts, or astronauts, leaving Earth from Kourou is not currently on the agenda, says Le Gall.

"First of all, we would have to adapt the facilities; and second, when you launch a Soyuz from Baikonur with humans inside you over-fly land. And if you have a problem you can separate from the launch vehicle and parachute down to the ground. Here, we would over-fly sea and it is much more complicated if we have a problem," he explains.

"We would need to have a fleet of ships along the flight-path. It's possible in the future, but right now it is simply not being discussed."

Station servicing

That is not to say Kourou will for ever be locked out of the human exploration of space. Far from it, this weekend sees the launch from French Guiana of Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle, a giant cargo ship that will ferry some five tonnes of supplies to the ISS.

ATV at Kourou (Esa/Arianespace)
Logistics ship will resupply the ISS with 4,860kg of cargo
Deliveries to include science equipment, food and clothing
Large tanks will transport vital air, water and fuel supplies
ATV project's estimated cost is about 1.3bn euros (0.9bn)
At least four craft will follow the maiden ATV - Jules Verne
Named after the author who wrote about fantastic journeys

Yes, the vehicle is unmanned but its operation will be integral to a fully functioning, completed station.

And the ATV flight will mark another important milestone for Arianespace - that of the heaviest payload lofted by one of its rockets.

The Ariane 5-ES vehicle has had to be specially strengthened to support the 19.5-tonne cargo ship.

At least four more ATVs will follow the initial mission over the next seven years and there could be more depending on how long the international partners in the space station project decide to continue platform operations.

These are exciting times at Kourou. As European ambitions in space grow, so does Kourou's importance.

Le Gall says talks are underway to use the Ariane 5 and Soyuz rockets to launch the Galileo constellation, the network of satellites that will provide a European version of GPS (Global Positioning System).

Although there is no guarantee that Arianespace will be selected for this prime job, the fact that Soyuz has already been asked to loft Galileo's test satellites suggests the company is in a strong position to win a leading role in launching the remaining spacecraft in the 2010-2013 window.

Science in space

There is the prospect, too, of a major mission to Mars beginning its journey from Kourou.

Europe's ExoMars rover project has gone through a design review that has made it so heavy it now requires a launcher on the scale of an Ariane 5 to get it to the Red Planet in 2014.

In addition, "big science" will also be passing though Kourou later this year when the European Space Agency entrusts an Ariane 5 to deliver two space telescopes into a special orbit 1.5 million km from Earth.

Herschel and Planck will study the cosmos at far-infrared and microwave wavelengths and their programmes represent a combined value of about 1.7bn euros.

If that sounds like a lot of money riding on just one rocket, wait until the Hubble successor, the James Webb Telescope, is launched on an Ariane 5 in 2013.

In just getting to the launch pad, the JWST will have consumed about 2.3bn euros in development costs.

It is all about confidence and Arianespace gives the impression it is bubbling with it at the moment.

Ariane 5-ECA Vega Soyuz 2-1B
52m 30m 46m
780 tonnes 137 tonnes 300 tonnes
13,000kN 3,040kN 4,140kN
9.6 tonnes to 35,000km (GTO) 1.5 tonnes to 700km (LEO) 3 tonnes to 35,000km (GTO)
Source: Arianespace

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