The space port for Ariane and Vega launch rockets in French Guiana – from Europa into Space

Apart from ARTS, companies across the world are involved in the manufacture of components for the launch rockets Vega and Ariane. The space centre in French Guiana is interstation of all rockets of these series on their way into space. Reason enough to have a closer look on its history and constructional condition.

© iStock.com, 3DSculptor

Cooperation offers advantages

The geographically well located spaceport in French Guiana was built in 1968. In the French-Guyanese city of Kourou with a population of around 26,000 inhabitants, the European spaceport is a major economic factor. Today, with many modifications to the launch pads, three very different rockets can carry satellites into orbit.


The European location French Guiana

French Guiana, located in the north of South America by the Atlantic Ocean, is part of the European Union. French Guiana belongs to France and is fully integrated into the French state. Since the French decentralization law of 1982, French Guiana is a region of France and a département at the same time.

For political reasons, the former rocket base Hammaguir in Algeria was abandoned at the end of the 1960s and replaced by the one in French Guiana. As early as 1965, a rocket base was established in Kourou, French Guiana. The spaceport in Kourou, also known as the Centre Spatial Guyanais, is one of the core sectors of the French Guiana economy and is also the tourist highlight.


Numerous advantages at the equator

The location on the Atlantic coast is one of the most favourably situated take-off places in the world. The distance from the rocket base to the equator is 580.2 km. Only five degrees north of the equator is the start point of the European spaceport (5° 13'18''N). The Earth's rotation at the equator gives the starting rockets more momentum than would be possible elsewhere in the north or south of the Earth. This makes it easier to put satellites into geostationary orbit if they are started close to the equator. Furthermore, the rockets need less fuel for a take-off in French Guiana than from Europe.

The initial orientation of the carrier rockets, which is used to reach the main orbits approached, crosses the Atlantic Ocean, so that no people are endangered during the start of the rocket. This is another advantage of the Centre Spatial Guyanais rocket site in French Guiana. Earthquakes and tropical cyclones are also ruled out in the region, which is another advantage of the location.


Rocket take-offs along the Atlantic coast

The spaceport in Kourou has a long history. The first rocket to take off from the spaceport was the Véronique high-altitude research rocket in 1964, and the first launch vehicle called Diamant put small satellites into orbit in 1970. Today, the French space agency CNES and the European Space Agency ESA jointly operate the Centre Spatial Guyanais spaceport in French Guiana. This is where the Ariane carrier rockets take off, as well as the small European Vega rockets and the Russian Soyuz rockets. Another spectacular start is scheduled for 2022. The space probe JUICE (Jupiter ICy moons Explorer) flies from the spaceport to Jupiter. Our ARTS colleague Frank Zimmermann will accompany its transport to South America.

Ariane 6 model at the 2016 Berlin Air Show

Ariane 6 model at the 2016 Berlin Air Show - © Banana Guerilla

Successful Ariane rocket

The original launch pad was converted for the European carrier rocket Ariane between 1975 and 1978. The follow-up models Ariane 2 and 3 could also take off from this ramp. From 1979 to 1991 the launch pad was named ELA-1 (Ensembles de Lancement Ariane). The entire launch preparation for the Ariane rocket had to be carried out on the ELA-1 launch pad, as the ramp only had a fixed take-off table. The rate was therefore limited to five launches per year. A new launch pad ELA-2 was built for Ariane 4. The first launch of Ariane 4 took place in 1988, but Ariane 3 was able to launch into space from the ELA-2 launch pad as early as 1986. For another three years, both ramp ELA-1 and ramp ELA-2 were used in parallel for rocket take-offs. Ariane 4 is so far the most successful Ariane model with a reliability of 97.4%. 113 successful starts were performed with the European carrier rocket. With its reliability, Ariane 4 made a major contribution to the fact that Arianespace, which is responsible for operations and marketing, has a global market share of 60%. The last Ariane 4 rocket took off in 2003.

With the further development from Ariane 4 to Ariane 5, the ELA-2 launch pad used previously could no longer be used. The ELA-3 launch pad for Ariane 5, which is approximately 62 metres high, was put into operation in 1996. The successor model Ariane 5 is also a key player in European space travel. This high-tech wonder makes it possible to transport particularly heavy cargo loads into orbit around the Earth. The rocket, which is powered by liquid hydrogen, can launch several satellites into orbit with payloads of more than ten tons. With a double take-off device, two larger satellites can be brought into orbit. For this purpose, the satellites are placed one above the other in the Ariane 5 nose cone at the front.

Some parts of Ariane 5 are produced in Germany. For example, the company MT Aerospace AG manufactures the housing of the booster. A booster is an auxiliary rocket which is used as a support during take-off and is later ejected. The dual launch device is manufactured in Bremen.


Expanding the service portfolio

The offer of the Centre Spatial Guyanais spaceport was based on the Ariane series for satellites with a particularly heavy cargo capacity. Companies that wanted to launch smaller satellites into space had to wait a long time for other companies with whom they could share the carrier vehicle. The European Space Agency initiated the development of Vega to cover the small satellite market. Vega stands for Vettore Europeo di Generazione Avanzata (Italian), which is translated as "advanced generation European launch vehicle". The four-stage Vega launch vehicle can carry a maximum weight of 2.5 tons into low earth orbit, but it can also carry smaller payloads of 300 kg. Following the demolition of the ELA-1 launch pad in the spaceport in Kourou, work began at the end of 2004 on the conversion of the launch pad for the new ELV (l'Ensemble de Lancement Vega) launch vehicle. The first qualifying flight of Vega, which is about 30 metres high, was in 2012 with a transport of nine satellites, including seven picosatellites from European universities.

Furthermore, the operators of the spaceport, the French space agency CNES and the European Space Agency ESA, have reached an agreement with the Russian space agency Roskosmos that Russian Soyuz rockets may be sent from the spaceport in Kourou. Particularly because of its proximity to the equator in Kourou, the 46-metre-high Soyuz rocket can carry heavier payloads into space than would be possible from the Russian spaceport in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. In Baikonur, the Soyuz can carry loads weighing only 1.7 tonnes towards geostationary orbit, whereas at the equator the Soyuz payload is three tons. At just over four tons, the maximum payload of the Soyuz rocket has been reached.

For the Russian rocket, the launch pad ELS (l'Ensemble de Lancement Soyouz) was built in Kourou. The first launch with the Soyuz rocket from the Centre Spatial Guyanais spaceport took place in 2011, when the Soyuz carried two Galileo navigation satellites into orbit. With the different rockets: Ariane, Vega and Soyuz, the spaceport in Kourou covers launch services for all payloads. Vega is suitable for light payloads, while Soyuz and Ariane are suitable for medium and heavy payloads.


Aerospace creates connections

Numerous companies around the world are involved in the production of Vega and Ariane components, and some of the components are also manufactured in Germany. For example, numerous aerospace experts are working in Bremen at Airbus Safran Launchers GmbH on the new development of Ariane 6, which is scheduled to make its maiden flight in summer 2020. In order to further advance aerospace, companies like Airbus Safran Launchers, since 01.07.2017 ArianeGroup, are interested in personnel with great expertise. Aerospace engineers, rocket scientists, and mechatronics engineersare needed for rocket research. Experts from all over the world are working together to further expand space travel. Developments such as Ariane 6 not only create jobs, but also promote the exchange of knowledge and improve cooperation between countries.


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