Thursday

12th Dec 2019

Feature

Guiana spaceport undaunted by European newcomers

  • The Guiana Space Centre's launch pad for Vega rockets, surrounded by the French Guiana jungle (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Seen from a viewing platform at 75 metres high, the positional advantages of the Guiana Space Centre (CSG) become clear.

In one direction, the Atlantic Ocean is visible, with Devil's Island, a former prison colony. In the other: nothing but rainforest, interrupted only by launch pads and buildings part of the CSG.

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  • Tourists and locals waiting for the launch of a Vega rocket (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Apart from some birds of prey circling above the trees, there are no signs of human or animal life.

Considering that rocket launches preferably take place in sparsely populated areas, it is no wonder that France's overseas department French Guiana, on the South American continent, continues to be Europe's main spaceport.

But there are other locations in mainland Europe that want to take a share of the growing number of launches. Two have been announced this summer: Scotland and Italy.

At a press trip to the CSG, organised by the European Space Agency (ESA) in the week of the launch of the new wind-mapping satellite Aeolus, officials were keen to stress that they were not going anywhere.

"Arianespace is very happy with the Guyana space centre," said Stephane Israel, the chief executive officer Arianespace, a private company which has carried out launches for ESA since the 1980s.

"I can confirm to you that the Guiana space centre is and will remain our reference spaceport," Israel told EUobserver.

The Guiana town of Kourou was selected in 1964 to serve as France's main spaceport from a list of 14 candidates that included also French Polynesia, the Seychelles, and Trinidad, as well as Darwin (Australia) and Mogadishu (Somalia).

Mainland France itself was not among the list of considered candidates. Kourou was needed because France had to abandon its original launch site after Algeria's independence.

French Guiana has remained part of France, however. In a 2010 referendum on Guiana's status, only 30 percent voted in favour of more autonomy.

The Jupiter control centre at the Guiana Space Centre (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Denis Dhelft is Russian interface assistant for Arianespace, working on the Soyuz launch pad - a collaboration with Russia, which normally launches Soyuz rockets from Kazakhstan.

"The advantage [in French Guiana] is that we are closer to the equator," said Dhelft, which means that less fuel is needed to get objects into space.

Dhelft could not think of any disadvantages, although he later noted that snakes and opossums sometimes have to be removed from equipment - it is jungle after all.

Having the open sea to the north and the east also has advantages for safety reasons.

On the day of a launch, the required five-kilometre safety radius mostly affects no one but CSG staff. The only citizens that need to be moved are those that work in hotels on Devil's Island, as well as two guards stationed there.

Highlands

Similar considerations will have been part of the United Kingdom's recent decision to select a remote peninsula in the north of Scotland as the UK's first spaceport.

The UK space agency announced in July that it had selected the A'Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland county.

The regional Scottish newspaper The Press and Journal hailed the decision in a commentary on 16 July for its expected economic effect.

"People in the Highlands will not only be looking skywards in awe, but also keeping a sharp eye on the ground to see how the spaceport will boost the region's economy and Sutherland in particular," it said.

'With so many remote and fragile Scottish communities having to scratch around to find a business niche they can exploit, many will applaud Sutherland's good fortune in landing such a prestigious investment of world significance," the paper noted.

The decision to establish a spaceport in the UK has little relation to Brexit, because the United Kingdom will continue to remain a member of the European Space Agency, which is independent from the EU.

Also in July, private space company Virgin Galactic announced that it would be launching spacecraft carrying tourists from a future Italian spaceport.

The plans for an Italian spaceport, to be developed at the Taranto-Grottaglie Airport, were announced in May by Italy's government.

No enemies

Officials of the European Space Agency and France's national space agency CNES told this website they did not see such plans as competition.

"First of all what has to be said is that Europe's spaceport for institutional missions is here, it's CSG," said Daniel Neuenschwander, director of space transportation ESA.

However, he noted that having commercial activities being added in addition to government-led launches, it would be a "good evolution" to have new spaceports.

"We can only look forward to that. The market will drive the development of such activity," he said.

"We are not enemies, especially in Europe," added Didier Faivre, director of the Guiana Space Centre.

He said it was "totally acceptable" if other spaceports emerged in Europe.

"We have no problem with that. But in any case Kourou is probably the best place to launch in geostationary orbit, which is a large part of the market," Faivre noted, referring to the orbit 36,000 kilometres above the equator.

Arianespace's CEO Israel said he was excited about the prospect of other spaceports.

"We could perfectly use other spaceports, but today our spaceport is the Guyana space centre," he noted.

Another ESA official, Josef Aschbacher, added that the planned spaceports in the UK and Italy were addressing a different market segment.

"They are mostly for smaller satellites, with smaller launchers, in order to cover a segment which is not covered by institutional launchers. Yes, there is a need or a purpose for this," he said.

Construction work of the new Ariane 6 launch pad - the seemingly smallest crane in the middle is standing in the position from where rockets will be launched (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The European Commission recently launched a proposal for a new EU space programme.

"An important aspect of the EU space programme is to maintain an autonomous, reliable and cost-effective access to space," said a commission spokeswoman.

She said that therefore the commission strongly supported the development of two new European launchers - Ariane 6 and Vega C.

"The European Union needs these launch capacities for its space activities, notably to maintain and further develop Copernicus Earth observation and Galileo satellite navigation services," she said.

She did not specifically answer the question whether there was sufficient demand for new spaceports in mainland Europe.

Local protests

Europe's autonomous access to space was very briefly interrupted last year, when protesters delayed a rocket launch during a five-week demonstration demanding more investment into French Guiana.

CSG director Faivre said that these protests could come back.

"What is still true today is that Guiana has not yet found any other development than space, which is not enough. We have 300,000 people in Guyana, and the space centre today has 1,700 employees," he noted.

In 2017, 22.4 percent of people in French Guiana were unemployed, compared to 9.4 percent across France, according to Eurostat.

Youth unemployment that year was estimated at 43.9 percent, compared to a 22.4 percent French average.

But Arianespace CEO Israel was convinced that the protests would not return.

"This is absolutely behind us. The protest is over for more than one year and … we have delivered many launches [since]," said Israel, who briefly spoke to EUobserver on the night of the Aeolus launch.

"You know, I had already forgotten. You are the first one to speak about it tonight," said the CEO.

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