America’s space shuttles are grounded, but Russia is forging ahead with plans for future spaceflight missions. In addition to launching Soyuz rockets from the usual spaceports in Kazakhstan and Russia, the country will soon add a brand new working launch pad to its arsenal — located in a jungle in French Guiana, along South America’s northern coast.
As soon as this fall, Russian Soyuz rockets are expected to begin launching from the European Space Agency’s French Guiana spaceport, where France’s Ariane satellite-launching rocket program is headquartered. This will mark the first time that a Soyuz launcher will lift off from a spaceport other than Baikonur in the Kazakhstan grasslands or Plesetsk in northern Russia.
The new launch pad is located 7.5 miles northwest up the French Guiana coastline from the existing Ariane 5 launch complex. The two Soyuz launches planned for this year will carry European Galileo positioning and navigation satellites into space.
But first, the program will undergo a series of reviews, which will last for several weeks.
In May, the launch pad had its first “dry run,” a launch rehearsal that gave Russian and French engineers the chance to practice procedures before the rocket lifts off. Engineers staffed control rooms, activated the rocket’s computers, and simulated the launch countdown and satellite-tracking cameras.
Soyuz rockets normally carry 3,500 pound payloads into orbit from Baikonur. From the French Guiana spaceport, the powerful Soyuz ST-B rocket will have an added benefit of being near the equator where the Earth’s spin is felt, allowing it to deliver a larger 6,600 pound payload into orbit.
The launch is scheduled to occur no earlier than late October.
NASA’s 30-year shuttle program closed out its mission when space shuttle Atlantis landed last week, making the Russian Soyuz system the sole means of sending astronauts to the International Space Station.