Thursday, June 18, 2009

Russia comes to South America

Construction of the new Soyuz launch facility at the Guiana Space Centre (Centre Spatial Guyanais – CSG), Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. Wide-angle view of the almost-complete Soyuz launch system. The four primary support arms are shown in their closed position, when they form a support ring around the ‘waist’ of Soyuz to suspend the vehicle over its launch pad. Directly behind the two rear support arms is the set of umbilical masts that will service the Soyuz Block A core stage, its Block I third stage, the Fregat upper stage and the payload. Visible below in the launch table’s 15-metre diameter circular opening are four triangular guides that will be connected to the four strap-on boosters – providing stability for the suspended vehicle until liftoff. The two other arms extending into the opening carry electrical umbilicals for the Soyuz boosters and the Block A core stage. Credits: ESA / CNES / Arianespace / Optique vidéo du CSG - J. M. Guillon

Recent reports from the Paris Air Show hinted at a construction delay at Roscosmos' new Soyuz launch facility at "Europe's Spaceport" on the Atlantic coast in French Guiana.

Launching into orbit from the equator carries advantages not unlike Russia's centuries-long effort to gain an ice-free seaport. Those advantages should not be taken lightly.

Based on a report from the European Space Agency, Thursday, construction is obviously very far along, something made clear by the pictures accompanying.

Instead of launching from French Guiana in late 2009, as originally planned, Roscosmos now says Soyuz will begin launching, much closer to the equator and over water, in early 2010.

In the space business, that's not really much of a delay.

The immediate advantage to launching from near the equator is the huge reduction in energy needed to attain earth orbit.

Beginning at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, very far inland, more than halfway to the North Pole, and where nearly every Russian orbital mission has launched since 1957 Soyuz is already clipping along even still, at a leisurely 323 meters per second eastward with the speed of Earth's rotation at 45° north latitude.

In the Americas, however, ESA's Spaceport in French Guyana is only 5.4° north of the equator, and ESA's Ariane V starts its flight already moving toward the east with the surface of the earth at 463 meters per second.

That extra 140 meters per second may not seem like much, though it makes a big difference in the amount of weight that the same booster can hoist into orbit. At $10,000 a kilogram this lowers costs in hauling up the same cargo and increases payload weight for identical boosters.

Another advantage is less obvious.

The Moon's orbital plain never comes closer than about 5° north or south of the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, where the Sun and ecliptic can still be precisely overhead.

But the surface of the Moon is never perpendicular to any booster while standing straight up at Cape Canaveral, and its orbital plain is never further North than Cuba.

Because the ecliptic is never directly over Kennedy Space Center, and never comes to its closest more than once each day, the difference has to be made up in energy used in off-plain maneuvers around the orbital nodes it shares with the Moon twice during each of a vehical's orbit, or more usually expends energy using something less than an efficient vector during a Moon-bound vehicle's boost to orbit from Cape Canaveral.

If your goal is orbit or the Moon, or beyond to nearly anywhere in this star system, the opportunities and highest effeciencies begin near the equator.

It's not hard to see why Russia is investing in the lifting of crew and cargo into orbit so close to the place where ESA has been launching payloads for more than a quarter century.

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