PRAGUE — A committee of Russian and European officials will meet in October to assess the status of the behind-schedule Soyuz launch facility in French Guiana and decide when it could be ready to support flights of the storied rocket. Jean-Jacques Dordain, the European Space Agency’s director general, said institutional and industrial representatives will meet Oct. 12 discuss the development of a dedicated Soyuz launch pad at the Guiana Space Center.
Set in the French Guiana jungle near Kourou, the French-controlled facility is also home to the Ariane 5 rocket.
“I can tell you that the availability of Soyuz for the first launch will be decided on the 12th of October,” Dordain told reporters here Monday. Officials have not settled on a payload for the first flight. The candidates include the French Pleiades Earth observation satellite or the first two validation satellites for Europe’s Galileo navigation system.
Dordain said the Galileo payloads won’t be ready until July, pushing the Soyuz flight until the middle of 2011 if it has to wait on those spacecraft. Two Soyuz rockets have been stored in Kourou since November 2009, waiting for the ground systems to be ready for preflight testing and launch.
Assembly of the mobile gantry triggered a delay of more than a year after Russian contractors ran into problems manufacturing and assembling more than 300 beams comprising the structure. Officials say the delays added nearly 40 percent to the original cost of the program to move commercial Soyuz launches to Kourou. The total cost is now estimated to be $475 million at 2002 values, equivalent to nearly $600 million today.
“We would do it completely differently if we had to redo this project,” said Jean-Marc Astorg, the coordinator of the Soyuz project in Kourou for CNES, the French space agency.
A Russian company named NIISK, formerly called KBOM, is overseeing construction at the brand new launch site on the northwest side of the sprawling space center.
“The mobile gantry does not exist at the launch pad in Russia,” Astorg said.
Launch pad designers added the gantry to protect the Soyuz from rain and humidity in Kourou.
ESA oversees Soyuz development in Kourou, while CNES acts as prime contractor. Arianespace will be responsible for commercial exploitation and manages the relationship with Russian organizations, including Roscosmos.
In a sign of renewed commitment to the project, Anatoly Perminov, chief of the Russian space agency, said Monday his top priority for international cooperation is the completion of the Soyuz facilities in French Guiana.
“It is most critical is to finish the construction work on the Soyuz launch (pad) in French Guiana,” Perminov said here. “Our second task is the International Space Station.”
The entire mobile service tower was assembled in Russia before it was shipped to South America, adding more time to the schedule.
“Each beam is put on the structure, is cut, then welded,” Astorg said. “That is why it took so long. It was necessary to dismount that, and to ship it to (Kourou), then find the right beam to put at the right place, which was quite a challenge.”
It took another nine or 10 months to put the gantry back together in French Guiana, even with technicians working day and night, according to Astorg.
“It’s almost finished,” Astorg said. “What is important is we’ve been able to start the integration of European equipment into the mobile gantry from May of this year. The integration of the structure is no longer on the critical path.”
Astorg identified constraining export control regulations as another weakness in the Soyuz partnership.
“Export control is a major concern,” Astorg said. “Sometimes we are forced to wait two months before getting technical notes.”
“Communication is still a problem, not only because of the language but because of the culture and so on,” Astorg said. “And also the decision-making process is quite different in Russia and in Europe.”
This fall, engineers will finish a series of mechanical, gas and propellant tests on the launch pad. The gantry will also be moved on rails to demonstrate its mobility.
If the facility is technically qualified by December, as currently scheduled, a Soyuz booster could be rolled 650 meters in early 2011 from the integration hall to the launch pad.
Astorg said engineers will not load super-cold liquid oxygen propellant into the Soyuz rocket before the first launch countdown. The Soyuz is only designed for 51 hours in cryogenic conditions, Astorg said.
The rocket will instead be fueled for the first time on launch day as a final exercise of the pad’s propellant systems