Kourou studied for Soyuz

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Julian Moxon/PARIS

Arianespace is close to deciding whether to extend its launcher base at Kourou, French Guyana, for use as a second pad for the Russian Soyuz launcher.

Arianespace chairman Jean-Marie Luton says that a political decision is likely "later this month".The Russian launcher forms the basis of the Starsem alliance, in which Aerospatiale, Arianespace and Soyuz-builder Samara are partners. Starsem signed its first two contracts in 1998, for six Globalstar launches and one for ESA.

The initial flights are destined to take off from the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan, but Luton says he wants to increase Starsem's operational flexibility by offering the more efficient Kourou site as well. He says the costs of adding a Soyuz launch facility to Kourou would be "between $100 million and $300 million", adding that a positive decision to use French Guiana would see the first Soyuz launch from the base in 2001/2.

Arianespace says that it won 13 of the 21 total geostationary launch contracts placed in 1998, and notched up its first order for a constellation at the end of the year - with Globalstar, for a single four-satellite launch in September, aboard an Ariane 4.

Last year saw an Ariane 4 orbit a record payload of 4.94t, and achieve the 100th flight to geostationary transfer orbit. A record unbroken string of 42 successful commercial launches has been flown, including the last seven in less than four months - another first, says Luton.

Three Ariane 5 launches are planned this year following the qualification of the new launcher in October, along with 10-11 Ariane 4s. The first Ariane 5 flight of the year is planned for the spring with Eutelsat W4 and Indonesia's Telekom 1 aboard.

Arianespace holds outstanding orders for 40 satellites worth around $3.9 billion. A total of 13 Ariane 5s is now in production, for use during 1999-2001. The Ariane 5 launch rate will build to six ayear by 2000, increasing to eight beginning in 2002, if there is market demand. A total of 32 Ariane 4s is being produced, the last of which will be launched in 2003.

While final figures are not ready, Arianespace says that sales for 1998 will be "near Fr7 billion [$1.2 billion]", with net income of around Fr70 million.