Soyuz Rockets in the Jungle: Europe and Russia Team Up for Unique Space Partnership

By in Kourou, French Guiana

This summer should see the first Russian Soyuz rockets launched from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Although the arrangement is beneficial for both sides, the project itself is fraught with complexity, delays and reservations.

Photo Gallery: Launching Russian Rockets from the Jungle Photos
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It looks like a gigantic carnival carousel, festively painted in blue, orange and yellow -- an oversized contraption surrounded by four floodlight masts and four enourmous lightening rods. Yet the site is completely silent.

But if things go according to plan, this odd structure in the jungles of French Guiana will soon be engulfed in ear-splitting roars and flames. After years of delays, the first Russian Soyuz rocket is to be launched this summer from the European spaceport in Kourou, the European Space Agency's launchpad in South America -- the most important cooperation project in international space flight.

A closer inspection of the steel edifice reveals a 30-meter (100-foot) deep hole between the supports. On the cement-covered ground, moss and algae are growing in puddles of rainwater. The guardrail surrounding the abyss does little to aleviate the dizzyness one feels when standing on the edge. It has steeply sloped sides designed to divert the noise and exhaust generated by a rocket launch. For the time being, though, it looks more like an out-of-service swimming pool than anything else.

A Natural, Cheaper Boost

When Russian rockets take off from the ESA site and thunder into orbit, it will mark a new chapter of cooperation in the history of space flight. The launch pad also offers the Russians a very tangible advantage in the form of natural boost to their rockets that they can't enjoy at the Russian space port in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

At the equator, the speed of the earth's surface generated by its rotation is at is fastest because the distance to the earth's axis is the greatest. As a result, less fuel is needed to launch rockets into orbit. Although Baikonur is located in the southern part of the former Soviet Union, at 45 degrees north latitude, Kourou is located at only 5 degrees north latitude, extremely close to the equator. Launching a Soyuz rocket from Kourou will require roughly 45 percent less fuel, and the money saved should cover the added expense of shipping the rocket to South America.

The Europeans are also very keen to attract the Russians to the site, commonly known as the Centre Spatial Guyanais (CSG), and they've even invested roughly €410 million in the Soyuz launch pad to do it. But it's not just a matter of international friendship behind this decision. It's simply a matter of size.

For its launches, the European Space Agency (ESA) has been using rockets from the Ariane family, which can carry payloads of up to roughly 10 metric tons -- such as communications satellites -- into geostationary orbit at €150 million a pop. But, these days, since it often happens that the payloads needed are much smaller than 10 tons, officials at ESA headquarters in Paris are looking for a smaller, cheaper rocket to work alongside the Ariane rockets.

Since using Soyuz rockets costs about half as much as using Ariane rockets, the former are expected to attract commercial satellite customers with smaller budgets. Soyuz rockets can ferry a three-ton load into geostationary orbit using technology that has been refined over the past 50 years.

Building an Exact Copy Halfway around the World

Jean-Jaques Dordain, the ESA's director general, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that his organization had two choices. "Either we could have developed a medium-size rocket on our own," Dordain said, "or we could have started a partnership with the Russians." For a number of reasons, including political ones, the ESA chose the latter. The decision meant that it had to build a launch pad on the grounds of its heavily guarded facility in Kourou similar to the one the Russians use in Baikonur.

The Russians working in Kourou describe the new launch pad as a "copy with improvements" of the one in Kazakhstan. But the spaceport built here in the middle of the rainforest looks like an exact replica of the one on the Kazakh steppe, right down to the two storage rooms where unneeded tables and chairs are locked away. Still, there is one important difference: a mobile servicing tower that construction workers are still diligently working on. Like a giant garage on wheels, the tower is supposed to shelter the 50-meter-high (164-feet-high) rockets from the hot and humid tropical weather.

The rain puddles on the ground and the dark clouds on the horizon hint at just how important this structure will be in protecting the rockets from frequent and heavy downpours. And since the Russians have no experience in building that kind of protective structure, it has taken much longer to complete than was initially estimated.

Building the deep chasm beneath the Soyuz launchpad has also proved very complex and led to additional delays. Massive granite deposits in the ground slowed construction significantly.

Still, the granite is necessary to bear the weight of the rockets. A Soyuz rocket with full fuel tanks weighs more than 300 tons, and it rests suspended on the yellow-and-blue steal framework over the exhaust-air shaft. As the ESA's Jean Claude Garreau explains: "The entire weight of the rocket sits on only four points."

After the rocket launches, the steel supports tip out like a blossoming flower. While the structure might look a bit old-fashioned, it has more than proven its reliability after more than 1,700 launches.

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