The number of launches from the Kourou Space Center of the Soyuz-ST-B rocket is increasing. In 2018 and 2019 there will be four launches, in contrast to the two seen in 2017, near the Kur River. “The program of launches from the Guiana Space Center was completed this year,” states Alexander Kirilin, Director General of the Progress Factory, in the Volga city of Samara.
Russian space technologies are in high demand across the world, and Russian industry and scientific colleges are still recognised as the leading lights in this sector. And if the RD-180 engines fell victim to the US-Russia political rhetoric, the cosmodrome “turnkey” implemented by Roscosmos for the European Space Agency (ESA) at the Kourou space center, fortunately, did not become a hostage of political intrigues. Russian mid-range rockets Soyuz-ST-B have been taking off from the Kourou cosmodrome in French Guiana for six years, and carry a much-needed payloads into commercial space, providing procurement revenues to Russian industry, taxes to the treasury and wages to the domestic workforce.
Interestingly, ten years ago, when the contract between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roskosmos was signed, specialists were skeptical about the prospects of the contract, but since then, services for the delivery of heavy communication satellites (several tons in weight) that the former USSR was unable to carry, have become more needed and in fashion.
The Russian Soyuz-ST-B missile was also developed ten years ago by TsSKB Progress, which unites players such as the Central Specialized Design Bureau (CSKB), the aforementioned Progress Factory, as well as several other agencies from both home and abroad. TsSKB Progress is an enterprise specializing in the production of Soyuz carrier rockets in various configurations. The Soyuz-ST-B was developed specifically under the ESA contract to launch cargo from the Kourou cosmodrome, a site that was chosen, not by chance, but because of its geographical features: There are no recorded earthquakes or hurricanes in this corner of the planet, and, given its relative isolation, meant that rockets that failed during testing, could simply fall into the Atlantic Ocean, without risk. Perhaps most importantly, all of the missiles launched from cosmodromes near the equator are able to travel faster, due to the launch sites’ location being so far-removed the earth’s axis – The speed of the earth’s rotation increases the speed of the rocket booster system.
On average, around 100 Russian specialists work at the Kourou River site, with the period approaching launch preparation seeing this number double. Workers from various Russian design bureaus and space enterprises descend upon French Guiana to oversee launches, spending two months there in the process.
The ESA has its own, vast space program, with its own carriers, satellites and associated, high-tech infrastructure. However, the ESA’s rocket fleet consists of only a lightweight, Vega-class vehicle, capable of carrying up to 1.5 tons of cargo, and a heavy, Ariane-5-class vessel that has a maximum payload of up to 21 tons. So, with a clear need apparent for a mid-class rocket, and that Russia had long-established itself as an extremely effective and reliable technological solution, coupled with a statistically low incidence of accidents, it seemed only logical that the ESA should look to this time-tested solution avenue to assist it. In addition to all of this, an important feature of the Russian ‘Union’ is its environmental friendliness: For fuel, kerosene and oxygen are used.
The approximate cost of launching a Soyuz rocket and its significance for Russian industry can only be guessed, and the value of the ESA contract remains a guarded secret, but what is known is that when 21 Soyuz carrier rockets and the necessary Fregat upper stage propulsion systems they require were purchased by the ESA and British company OneWeb in 2016, the amount paid was in the region 1.5 billion dollars.
The ESA’s program with Roskosmos is designed to run for a period of 15 years and 50 launches. “We began to build a launch pad for the Soyuz rocket in 2007, and in October 2011 – six years ago -the first launch took place,” a representative at the Progress Factory stated.
The Soyuz-ST-B is merely the tip of a large infrastructure iceberg. As part of contracts with ESA and Roscosmos, 300 million euros (at 2005 prices) were set aside to be spent on the creation of ground infrastructure, and a large part of this money was handed to Russian engineering firms. These firms were responsible for projects such as the railway systems that would carry rockets from the assembly line to the launchpad itself and, as only a rail line gauge of 1,520mm was suitable to carry such goods, and that Russia was the only country that utilised such a specialist gauge, what better choice was there? In addition to the missile itself, various Russian enterprises supplied and serviced ground-based equipment and infrastructure at the cosmodrome in Guiana, so all equipment is marked with the sign Made in Russia. Refuelling of rockets with liquid oxygen and nitrogen in Kourou is provided by Balashikha’s Cryogenmash system – part of the OMZ group controlled by Gazprombank. Circa 700 tons of liquid oxygen and more than 80 tons of liquid nitrogen are stored here in anticipation of a rocket’s launch, and an average of some 200 tons of liquid oxygen are needed to refuel one ‘Union’ vessel.
Oxygen enables the combustion of kerosene, with nitrogen serving several tasks: creating excess pressure in the fuel tanks, ensuring the purging and cleansing of all systems and, most over-archingly, general safety. The temperatures at which these gases are stored in the form of a cryogenic liquid are minus 196 degrees and minus 183 degrees Celsius for nitrogen and oxygen, respectively. If the temperature of the surrounding air is taken into account, there can be a difference of more than 200 degrees and, with such a difference present, heat losses can be giant. All of this signifies, not only the potential loss of precious oxygen and nitrogen, but also risks a critical increase in pressure, due to the evaporation of gases.
Therefore, the system of cryogenic tanks and pipelines, or Cryogenmash, has screen-vacuum insulation, which minimizes the loss of the liquefied nitrogen and oxygen during storage and loading at a level of no more than 0.1% per day. “Cryogenmash has been developing and producing equipment for the space industry for 55 years. These are thermostating systems, filling systems not only with liquid oxygen and nitrogen, but also with liquid hydrogen for space launches in Russia, Kazakhstan, India, South Korea, French Guiana, for research and test benches of rocket engines – and these solutions, born for flights into space – unique in their complexity – are subsequently used to solve earthly tasks for metallurgists, chemists, doctors, machine builders and scientists, ” says Mikhail Smirnov.