Countries agree to Soyuz launches from Kourou

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TIM FURNISS / LONDON

France to pay half of new pad construction cost, although Baikonur will stay in use

The Russian, French and European space agencies were due to sign an agreement as Flight International closed for press last week allowing the use of Kourou in French Guiana for launching Russian Soyuz boosters.

While France has agreed to pay half the cost of building the launch pad - construction of which has begun - European Space Agency (ESA) member countries have yet to decide their contributions. It is also unclear whether Russia will pay for any of the construction work, although deputy prime minister Boris Alyoshin says Kourou launches could earn Russian companies $1.16 billion over five to six years.

Soyuz boosters are flown fromBaikonur in Kazakhstan and Plesetsk in Russia, and commercial launches from Baikonur are marketed by French/Russian company Starsem, in which Arianespace is a shareholder. Rosaviakosmos general director Yuri Koptev says Russia has no plans to withdraw from the Baikonur cosmodrome, which it leases from Kazakhstan, after the ministry of defence indicated it would consider moving all military launches to Plesetsk.

"We could not accomplish either federal or international space programmes without Baikonur, even if purpose-designed launch vehicles for Plesetsk and its launch pads are ready on time," says Koptev, referring to the Angara booster under development by Khrunichev. Withdrawal will not happen before 2015, he says, until which time Russia is obligated to continue launches to the International Space Station (ISS). "Placing of commercial satellites into geostationary orbit will continue from Baikonur until the Angara proves up to specification."

Meanwhile, a decision by the Russian government on an extra Rb2.8 billion ($93.5 million) for Rosaviakosmos for extra Soyuz and Progress flights to the ISS is expected "within weeks", says Koptev. "The prime minister has sent a strong message to the ministry of finance, demanding they provide us with extra cash this year." Even if theUS Space Shuttle returns to flight in October-November next year, two months will be needed for test flights. "For the whole of the next year the station will totally depend on Russian-built vehicles," he says.

The European-Russian Eurockot organisation launched a converted SS-19 Rokot booster from Plesetsk on 31 October carrying Japan's Space Environmental Reliability Verification Integrated System (Servis 1) satellite into a 1,000km (620 mile) circular sun-synchronous orbit. Servis is designed to demonstrate the viability of using commercial off-the-shelf electronics in spacecraft. Eurockot is to make two commercial launches in 2004.