The maiden flight of Russia's veteran Soyuz rocket from Europe's Guiana Space Center here is likely to slip by several months, to mid-2009, following delays in production of a specially designed mobile gantry that is being built in Russia, according to government and industry officials.
Unlike almost every other aspect of the Soyuz launch installation, the mobile gantry is not a copy of the Soyuz launch installations long in use at Russia's Plesetsk and Baikonur cosmodromes. For Europe's Soyuz operations, the satellite payload will be placed upright onto the vehicle rather than integrated horizontally as is the common Russian practice.
Whether the mid-2009 inaugural-launch date can be maintained will depend in part on how smoothly the Russian engineering teams due to arrive here in March are integrated into daily operations.
Around 200 Russian Soyuz technicians — few of them fluent in English or French — are being brought to the spaceport to complete construction of the launch site, which is some 15 kilometers distant from Europe's Ariane 5 launch operations.
Most commercial satellites launched here are U.S.-built or have U.S.-made parts. As a result, security requirements insisted on by, among others, the U.S. government, made it necessary to separate the Russian teams and the Soyuz operation from the rest of the Guiana launch base.
In addition to the Russian construction crews to be stationed here in 2008, up to 250 Russian launch specialists will arrive for each month-long Soyuz launch campaign. Current estimates are that two to four Soyuz vehicles will be launched per year.
"When the first boat full of Russians arrives and the 200 Russians begin working with us — only then will we have a clear idea of how long it will take to finish the installation," said Frederic Munoz, deputy director for ground operations at the French space agency, CNES. "They were scheduled to arrive in January, but the delay in the gantry's completion automatically delayed their arrival by three months."
Preparing the launch pad and operating Soyuz launches will require an unprecedented collaboration between the French and European teams on one side, and the Russian experts on the other. Rocket technology is typically viewed around the world as something of strategic national importance.
But Munoz said the Russian and French teams have been able to work through their initial difficulties. For example, he said, Russia's initial refusal to turn over to French authorities the exact formula for the kerosene used to power Soyuz engines was overcome by French insistence that, for environmental purposes, French authorities needed to know the ingredients. In another example, Russia has agreed to share third-party liability responsibility with France for Soyuz operations even though the launches are from French territory.
The medium-lift Soyuz rocket, which by most measures is the most reliable launch vehicle ever built, is being brought here as part of an agreement between the French government, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency, Roskosmos.
France is paying some 63 percent of ESA's share of building the Soyuz installation. The total ESA investment was estimated at 223 million euros ($328 million at current exchange rates) in 2002.
The Arianespace launch consortium of Evry, France, is paying an additional 121 million euros for Russian equipment through a low-interest loan from the European Investment Bank that was backed by the French government.
The European Union's executive commission has agreed to invest about 34 million euros into the project as part of its program to support new infrastructure construction.
To comply with Space Center requirements on safety and security, minor modifications to the Soyuz telemetry system are being made for the European version.
The Soyuz vehicle to be launched here will be able to carry a commercial telecommunications satellite weighing 3,000 kilograms into the standard geostationary transfer orbit — 50 percent more capacity than the same vehicle operated from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, because of the Guiana Space Center's proximity to the equator.
Arianespace, Roskosmos and Russian industry representatives in June signed a contract for the first four Soyuz rockets, but Arianespace officials say a new order for 15 Soyuz vehicles needs to be signed early this year to meet expected demand.
"We are already overbooked in the sense that we have customers for more than the four Soyuz rockets already ordered," Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said in a Dec. 20 interview here.
Le Gall said the agreement between Arianespace and the Russian Soyuz manufacturers, signed with the oversight of Roskosmos, protects the European Soyuz venture from a dramatic increase in prices. "This new order requires some negotiations, but there is no reason for us to be concerned about any dramatic surprises in price," he said.