Russia launched the first upgraded Soyuz-2 booster from Plesetsk on 8 November. The Soyuz-2-1a, designed to lift 2,780kg (6,115lb) to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), carried a test payload on the flight.
Launcher improvements include digital control and telemetry systems for more accurate deployment, new spray injectors for the first and second-stage engines and better trajectory measurement.
The launch was important to the European Space Agency because the Soyuz-2-1b version, with a 3,060kg GTO payload capacity, will be flown commercially from its new launch pad in Sinnamary, French Guiana from 2007, with a maiden Russian flight in mid-2006.
"The 2-1b will have a new third stage with the new RD-0124 engine," says Jean-Pierre Haigneri, head of ESA's Soyuz at Guiana Space Centre programme. "The main characteristic of this engine is a gimballed nozzle. It also includes recycling of the turbopump gases, which improves the performance."
ESA refers to the new launchers as Soyuz ST 2-1-a and ST 2-1-b, as a new "ST-type" fairing will be added to both versions for longer and wider cargo space.
ROB COPPINGER / LONDON