ESA fails to set maiden Soyuz launch date

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The maiden launch of Samara Space Center Soyuz rockets from French space agency CNES's French Guiana spaceport now has no date, but the European Space Agency is still aiming for late this year.

The first flight had been planned for 2007, postponed to 2008 and then a two-month delay to the arrival of Russian hardware last year pushed it back to the latter half of this year.

Originally agreed in 2003 the deal between ESA, CNES and the Russian Federal Space Agency will see the Soyuz rocket's 2-1a and 2-1b versions launched from a complex built in the municipality of Sinnamary.

"I want it to happen this year because we want to launch [the Galileo satellite navigation system] satellites in June next year," says ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain. For Galileo satellite deployment, the Soyuz 2-1b is needed and work to upgrade the Sinnamary launch pad to operate that version should start by August.

The other maiden launch for French Guiana this year is ESA's Italian-led four-stage Vega rocket. It has a November or December target date. Dordain says this could slip "into 2010", but that the Soyuz delay had nothing to do with any date change for Vega.

Dordain will meet his Russian counterparts in the "next few weeks". He intends to discuss buying time for ESA astronauts on the International Space Station from Russia. ESA previously paid Russia to buy cosmonaut time to enable German-born European astronaut Thomas Reiter to work on ISS from July to December 2006.