New French Soyuz launch site to be upgraded next year

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Construction of €20 million ($28.3 million) worth of equipment necessary to launch the latest version of the Samara Space Centre Soyuz rocket, the 2-1b, from French space agency CNES's spaceport in French Guiana, is under way to achieve a February 2010 maiden flight.

That flight would see launch services company Arianespace provide the rocket for the first two of four in-orbit validation satellites, which are test spacecraft that are also part of the final 30-satellite constellation for the European Union's Galileo satellite navigation system.

The 2-1b is needed to launch Galileo satellites as the Soyuz 2-1a cannot carry out the mission. While the 2-1a can put 2,700kg (5,940lb) into geostationary transfer orbit, the 2-1b can achieve 3,600kg. The spaceport will be able to operate the 2-1a version only when that rocket makes its first flight next year from the new launch site in the municipality of Sinnamary in French Guiana. Its flight will be the first time a Soyuz rocket has not been launched from a Russian cosmodrome.

"We signed the contract in July. We are procuring the equipment from our Russian counterparts," said Arianespace vice-president Soyuz development and exploitation, Francois Barreau, at the International Astronautical Congress in Glasgow in the UK on 29 September.

The 2-1b has a different grade of kerosene for its upper stage and the new equipment will enable the use of that fuel. After manufacturing and qualification tests the equipment will be transported to French Guiana in June or July next year. Then it will wait until the launch of the first 2-1a so the site can be commissioned and then it will be used for the upgrade.