A Russian-made rocket has been launched in the Western Hemisphere for the first time in history. The Soyuz rocket lifted off from the Kourou Space Center in the French Guiana, carrying two European navigation satellites.
The Russian Federal Space Agency Roskosmos is taking its space-launch services to an entirely new level under its strategy to focus more on commercial space projects.
A Soyuz-ST rocket, a modified version of Russia's Soyuz-2 launch vehicle, has placed two satellites of the Galileo global navigation satellite system (GNSS) in an intermediate circular orbit. This system being created by the European Union is similar to the Global Positioning System (GPS) of the United States and Russia's Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS).
Soyuz rockets have already launched two test versions of the Galileo satellites from Russia. A Russian rocket will launch two more from the Guiana Space Center in 2012. The Galileo system will have 27 operational satellites and three reserve satellites by the end of the decade. The system will begin to transmit signals to users in 2014 and will become fully operational in 2016.
A contract between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the French-Russian Starsem consortium plays an important part in these plans. Starsem was established in 2006 to sell Soyuz launch vehicles on the global market of commercial launch services. Russia has a 50% stake in the joint venture, which is split equally between Roskosmos and the Samara-based central
specialized design bureau Progress. The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) and France's Arianespace commercial space transportation company own 35% and 15%, respectively.
The Kourou Space Center in French Guiana is very conveniently located. The facility's proximity to the Equator makes it possible to reduce payload-launch costs by 15% compared to the John F. Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral in the U.S. state of Florida, and by 40%, compared to the Baikonur Space Center in Kazakhstan. This makes it possible to save fuel, increase payload weight and, therefore, cut expenses. Statements touting the historic nature of the launch are not just a way to attract attention or express excitement. Russia's Soyuz rockets have gone international and have started entering the global market. Another Soyuz rocket is to launch six spacecraft from Kourou on December 17.
Slow start from the tropics
Soyuz rockets were to have started lifting off from Guiana in 2009. At first, there were predictable delays totaling several months. After all, such ambitious projects are bound to suffer from delays. But the delays began to pile up, ultimately setting the first launch back by two years.
A significant part of the delay was due to the construction of a huge hangar-type mobile gantry, which covers the rocket on the launch pad and is used to service it.
The gantry was manufactured in Russia. But a Russian company manufacturing important load-bearing structural elements had reportedly fallen victim to a corporate raid. The delay was later explained by incorrect assembly, placing the blame on the French side, and even by the use of paint which was allegedly health hazardous.
The year 2009 came and went, but the delays continued throughout 2010. The launch schedule was disrupted, and other launch vehicles, not Soyuz, had to be used to orbit various satellites. Subsequent deadlines were set for the fall of 2010, early 2011 and finally August 2011.
Were it not for an unexpected abortive Soyuz launch in Russia, the Russian rocket would have lifted off from Kourou this past August. The rocket was rechecked, and the Kourou facility was ready for launch by late October.
Launch deadlines were postponed once again on October 20, after the third stage's fuel-injection valve sprang a leak. Rain started falling on the Kourou Space Center 24 hours later, as the rocket stood poised for launch. But this was inconsequential, and the first Soyuz rocket streaked across the South American sky through the gray shroud of rain.
Russian Space Agency goes global, but the rockets remain
The administrators of the Russian Federal Space Agency are determined to reap greater economic benefits from national space programs. Agency head Vladimir Popovkin recently told the State Duma, that the national space sector plans to focus increasingly on commercial space projects, such as remote sensing, navigation and telecommunications satellites.
Revenues were at the center of attention. Russia accounts for 40% of global launches and manufactures 20% of the world's spacecraft, but receives only 3% of its revenue from commercial launch services, Popovkin said. During his speech Popovkin unexpectedly announced that his agency is halting the Rus-M launch vehicle program. The Rus-M rocket was intended to gradually replace Soyuz vehicles during subsequent launches from the future Vostochny space center in Russia's Amur Region.
Soyuz rockets, one of which has just soared from South America and over the Atlantic Ocean, will also be the first to lift off from Russia's Far East. This temporary but time-tested option is certainly profitable.
Soyuz rockets are, in fact, upgraded versions of the R-7/SS-6 Sapwood missile and launch vehicle, which played a major part in all successful Soviet space missions in the 1950s and 1960s. The great-grandchildren of this space rocket might well celebrate the rocket family's 100th anniversary while blasting off from the South American jungle, the Kazakh steppe, the Arkhangelsk taiga and hills of Russia's Far East.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.