European Space Agency fingers remain crossed as the countdown
continues towards its much-anticipated Soyuz launch on 20 October.
Not only will the three-stage ST-B rocket will be making its
first-ever flight from ESA’s launch centre at
Kourou, French Guiana, its payload will be the first two satellites for Europe’s
Galileo navigation constellation.
Final assembly began on 12 September, following electrical
and mechanical tests in August. The horizontal integration is taking place
inside a purpose-built building at the spaceport, with rollout to the launch
pad and a new 45m-tall mobile gantry was built specifically for Soyuz
operations, planned for 14 October.
A second Soyuz launch, carrying two more Galileo spacecraft,
is to follow in December. Then, thanks to cash freed up by some €500 million
($715 million)-worth of cost savings, ESA will embark on a fast-track push to purchase
and launch enough satellites to provide near-global coverage by the end of 2014
– some seven years behind the original plan, but well ahead of expectations at
the beginning of this year.
Some of the new satellites may prove more capable than existing
designs, so the full extent of coverage available remains to be seen. UItimately,
the complete Galileo plan calls for 27 spacecraft and three orbiting spares by
European Commission vice-president for industry Antonio
Tajani has been Galileo’s champion in Brussels, and has described October
launch as of “historical importance” as Europe seeks to match or
exceed US capability in a technology that will bring significant safety,
operational and economic benefits to European citizens.
VEGA EN ROUTE
And meanwhile, to cap off what ESA director general
Jean-Jacques Dordain has called a “year of launchers”, components of ESA’s
first Vega rocket this week left Avio’s factory in Colleferro, near Rome, for sea transport
to Kourou in anticipation of the type’s maiden flight in December or January.
The medium-lift Soyus and light category Vega will
complement ESA’s heavylift Ariane 5s to provide a fully flexible range of
launch options at Kourou. Vega, whose first stage is one of the world’s biggest
carbon fibre single-piece structures, is designed to launch satellites up to 1.5
tonnes into 700km polar orbits. As French Guiana
is much closer to the equator than Soyuz’s normal launch site at Baikonur,
added boost from the Earth’s spin will nearly double its maximum payload to
geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) to 3 tonnes. Ariane 5 can lift 10 tonnes to GTO,
though ESA member governments are thought to be moving towards approval of a
mid-life upgrade to increase payload capacity.
A longer-term project is also underway, to develop a a
high-thrust cryogenic engine that could form the basis of ESA’s next-generation
launcher. It will not fly until about 2025, but is intended to provide a
medium-lift capability in a modular design, with a re-ignitable upper stage and
options for strap-on solid propellant boosters offering extra thrust.