Jupiter launch control centre

Europe's Spaceport: 35 years and counting...

Recent Hollywood blockbusters like 'Gravity' and 'Interstellar' give space a sci-fi image. But when it comes to transporting real-life hardware (and people) into space, it's "less Buck Rogers, more Eddie Stobart". We visit the Guiana Space Centre to see space transportation in action. 

As I watch the thundering Ariane 5 rocket arc across the darkening tropical sky in a familiar battle against Earth's restraining gravity, I cannot help but be impressed. The arcane knowledge that turbopumps are forcing cryogenic propellants into a seething cauldron of a combustion chamber developing 138 tonnes of raw thrust does little to detract from the excitement of seeing Newton's First Law in such demonstrative action.

Following the rocket plume as it moves out of the Earth's shadow, and back into the sunlight that only minutes before had illuminated the launch site, I'm struck that this is a common occurrence here at the Guiana Space Centre. Since its inaugural flight in 1996,the Ariane 5 has launched 76 times and chalked up 62 consecutive successful flights deploying 100 satellites. In fact, the Ariane family as a whole has conducted some 220 missions since its introduction in December 1979.

In recent years, a number of US states have sought to develop so-called 'spaceports', the most progressive being Spaceport America in New Mexico, from where Virgin Galactic's suborbital tourist flights will depart. Last year, the UK government commissioned a study for a UK spaceport, and one of the potential sites, Prestwick, even had a stand at a recent space conference in London.

While these are interesting developments, it is worth remembering that Europe has operated a fully functional spaceport in French Guiana for 35 years, not for tourism flights but for commercial and government launches of communications satellites and other spacecraft. Initially, the Guiana Space Centre (known as CSG from its French abbreviation) handled a single launch vehicle (Ariane), but more recently it has widened its remit to include the Russian-built Soyuz and European small launcher Vega. The ability to handle three different rockets that launch different types and sizes of payload to a variety of orbits makes CSG more like an airport, hence the term spaceport.

Rockets in the jungle

An area of tropical jungle that obliges European visitors to seek yellow fever jabs and anti-malarials might not seem the obvious place for a spaceport, but there are a couple of fundamental reasons why CSG is where it is. The first is historical: in the 1960s, the French national space agency, CNES, established a launch site near the town of Kourou in French Guiana for its domestic rocket programme and, given its subsequent predominant role in the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO), it was natural to offer the site first for the development of the Europa launch vehicle and, later, for Ariane.

The second reason is that a site on the north-east coast of South America allows rockets to be launched over the ocean and away from populated areas. Similar reasoning placed Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base on the southern California coast. But the reasoning for CSG, KSC and other launch sites has as much to do with geographical latitude, which can affect launch vehicle performance by a significant margin. At 5.2' north, CSG is one of the closest launch sites to the equator, which is a key advantage for the deployment of satellites into geostationary orbit.

Since 1975, when the European Space Agency (Esa) came into being, it has continued to fund two-thirds of the annual budget to ensure CSG's availability for Agency missions. As of late 2012, Esa had invested "more than €1.6bn in improving and developing the ground facilities at Europe's Spaceport", according to its website. Among other things, Esa owns the specialised infrastructure built for the Ariane launchers, including launch operation facilities and a solid propellant manufacturing plant.

CSG covers about 750 square kilometres – similar to the area of New York City – and has a 50km coastline bordering the Atlantic Ocean. From the air it is predominantly green, being mainly equatorial forest and grassland, with a number of cleared areas for launch pads, launcher integration buildings and satellite preparation facilities. About 12km from the Ariane pad are the visitor facilities and the Jupiter Control Centre, from which launches are conducted. Hardcore rocketeers prefer to view launches from the Toucan viewing site: although it's a 'mossie pit' it's only 5km from the pad.

The launches themselves are marketed and conducted by Arianespace, which was founded in 1980 as the world's first commercial launch operator. Its shareholders include CNES and a who's who of European space companies representing 10 different nations. Although variants of the Ariane were the only rockets launched from CSG for more than two decades, in April 2005 Arianespace signed an agreement with the Russian space agency Roskosmos to lay the contractual groundwork for the Russian Soyuz – normally deployed from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan – to be launched from the Guiana Space Centre.

The Soyuz is based on the R-7 booster, which orbited Sputnik 1 and also formed the basis of the Vostok that carried Yuri Gagarin and other cosmonauts to orbit. In its various versions, the Soyuz has performed over 1,800 launches since its introduction in 1966 and is now used to transport crews to and from the International Space Station. The variants flown from CSG since 2011 feature an updated digital flight control system, larger payload fairing and enhanced third stage designed to deliver payloads weighing up to 3.2 tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

Although historically commercial satellites have increased in size and required ever larger launch vehicles, satellites are not sufficiently standardised to match the rated capability of a given rocket. This and other factors led Arianespace to develop a dual-satellite launch system, but the company has had difficulties in coordinating payloads from different customers to fill an Ariane 5. This is where the 'Europeanised Soyuz' comes in handy, being optimised to launch satellites that are effectively too small for the Ariane heavy-lifter.

A third category of vehicle to operate from CSG is Esa's small launch vehicle, Vega, designed to deliver satellites weighing up to two tonnes into polar and low-Earth orbits. It is also operated by Arianespace and uses the launch facilities originally built for the Ariane 1 and Ariane 3 launchers (though suitably updated).

Launch autonomy

Reducing Europe's reliance on the US for access to orbit has not been cheap or easy, but the launch infrastructure at CSG has given Europe that much-desired autonomy. The fact that Arianespace has also secured 60 per cent of the world market for commercial satellite launches is the icing on the cake. As the company proudly puts it: "Arianespace continues to set the global standard in launch systems for all players."

Although it's difficult to compare the leading commercial launch operators, it is easy to see why users might return to Arianespace. Not only does it offer a selection of launcher types with reasonable mission reliability, but the wide-body charter flights from Paris-Charles de Gaulle, hotel accommodation at CSG, hospitality and optional local tours make it more of an experience than a business trip... as if seeing an 800-tonne rocket punch its way into orbit wasn't enough!

Of course, Esa has as much skin in Arianespace's game as any organisation and is morally obliged to use its vehicles. As Esa director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain puts it: "All European satellites can be handled by Arianespace, so there is no excuse not to use Arianespace."

But a launch operator is only ever as good as its last launch and there is always the chance that something will go wrong, ditching millions of dollars-worth of hardware in the ocean. The expressions and the body-language of the launch providers and customers, pre-launch, say it all, but Dordain put it into words before Esa's final Automated Transfer Vehicle launch to the International Space Station: "I am as nervous as for the first ATV launch. Each vehicle is unique [and as important as any other]. But I shall be more relaxed tonight," he added with a smile.

Market development

Although Europe appears to have settled on its launcher triumvirate, the market never really stands still and preparations are already being made at CSG for the next generation of the Ariane vehicle, Ariane 6.

According to Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel, the new launcher will have a significant impact on CSG, as developments are expected to include a new launch pad and launch control centre. "The objective," he says, "is to decrease the average time between launches from three weeks to two weeks," a frequency measure the industry likes to refer to as "cadence". Unfortunately, this cadence is often disrupted by delays in delivery of satellites because of technical problems in manufacturing and/or testing. So as Israel readily admits, his objective will "depend on the readiness of satellites".

Although Arianespace has a conservative target of ten launches per year for its three-vehicle fleet, Israel is optimistic: "We expect 12-13 in the near future," he says.

Quite how Ariane 6 factors into the mix remains to be seen. Design details and workshare agreements between Esa Member States have yet to be ironed out, but it is expected that they will realise an Ariane 62 model for government missions, mainly to medium and low-Earth orbit, and a heavier Ariane 64 with strap-on solid rocket boosters for commercial GTO missions. France says it will finance 50 per cent of development costs, Germany about 20 per cent, and Italy and other Member States the remainder.

The Ariane 6 should be ready for its inaugural flight in 2020, which gives CSG time to develop the new facilities and decide with Esa how the Ariane 5 will be phased out. European satellite operators applauded the decision, but warned that the vehicle needs to be in operation as soon as possible to compete with US upstart the Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

SpaceX has already disrupted the commercial space launch industry by developing its Falcon 9 series to address the GTO market (including a heavy-lift variant from 2015) and poaching business from the incumbents. Although SpaceX is focusing on the refurbishment of a former Space Shuttle launch pad at KSC, from which it will launch the Falcon 9, the company has broken ground for a new site in south Texas which it expects to use from late 2016. As the space-launch infrastructure expands, competition for Europe's spaceport will grow.

From imagination to reality

Rockets have featured heavily in written and visual science fiction, along with the facilities from which they are launched. For example, the launch site for Jules Verne's Moon rocket in 'Autour de la Lune' was in Florida, unknowingly predicting Apollo. By the time Dan Dare appeared in the 'Eagle' comic in the 1950s, these launch sites were commonly known as spaceports.

A question remains as to whether vertical or horizontal launches will dominate traffic in the near future: in other words, will spaceplanes replace rockets?

While the efforts of budding space tourism providers, such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR, are newsworthy, it is interesting to note that both acknowledge the market for more prosaic scientific and engineering payloads. VG's WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane, for example, has been designed to carry the LauncherOne unmanned rocket as an alternative to SpaceShipTwo. The aircraft, taking off horizontally, forms the 'first stage' and the rocket, transitioning to vertical flight, forms second and subsequent stages.

Meanwhile, artists' impressions of future UK spaceport concepts typically include Reaction Engine's Skylon spaceplane speeding along the runway, almost never a classical vertically-launched rocket.

Speaking at the Reinventing Space conference in London in November, Adam Baker of Newton Launch Systems criticised the "fanciful idea of a spaceport in the UK with a Norman Foster-style terminal building", arguing that all you really needed to launch rockets carrying smallsats or nanosats was "a square of concrete in a field". Needless to say, not everyone agrees.

The analogical connection between an airport and a spaceport is clear, but until the general public can join a check-in queue for a spaceflight, spaceports will retain their sci-fi image. That said, if the current proposals meet their promise, space transport – while remaining 'out of this world' – will be closer to what most of us perceive as reality. *

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