Russia’s Soyuz space launcher is one of the space race’s legendary pioneers. After 50 year’s service, it is about to enter a new era with the inauguration of a building site in French Guyana. From here it is hoped the Russian rocket will blast off from the end of 2008.
The new base is at Sinnamary, just a few kilometres from the French launchpad at Kourou. The French are the project’s lead contractors, and the money is coming from Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, and ESA, its European equivalent. Jean Marc Astorg is project leader for CNES, France’s Centre Nationale d’Etudes Spatiales:
“For this project to succeed a lot of discussions are needed between European and Russian specialists. Every detail has to be agreed on formally, and to get agreement in the face of cultural and linguistic differences a lot of talking’s needed, but at the end of the day the laws of physics are the same in Europe and Russia”.
The Russians bring their tried and tested Soyuz technology to the party. Since 1957 Soyuz has successfully launched 1718 times, putting 1661 satellites in orbit, along with 91 Russian cosmonauts, and 40 foreigners. It is robust and reliable, and will complete a range of commercial launchers, in between the giant Ariane Five, and the future Vega rocket.
From Baikonour in Kazakhstan Soyuz could only lift a two-ton payload. But from Guyana it can use the Equator’s slingshot effect to lift three tons, or an extra satellite per launch.
Just like at Baikonour Soyuz will be ferried to its pad by train, so perhaps in two year’s time we will see the export of a Russian space-age tradition; laying coins on the rails for good luck – but will they be Soviet-era Kopeks, or Euros?