So, the Soviets won the space race

20 Oct 2011

So who won the space race? The US might have been the hare, getting to the moon first in 1969, but if today’s Soyuz launch is anything to go by, fast forward to 2011 and it seems like the Soviet tortoise has won in the long run by being slow but sure.

For the first time, a Russian Soyuz rocket is being launched by Arianespace from its equatorial base in French Guiana. This is significant for a number of other reasons. Launch number 1,777 will carry a pair of Galileo satellite navigation satellites as part of a first step to free Europe from reliance on the US GPS system.

Arianespace has a launch capacity of up to seven Ariane-5 rockets a year, or up to 14 typical communication satellites as most launches have a double payload. Adding the Soyuz base means up to an additional four launches a year and with the Soyuz now being half the capacity of the Ariane 5, adds significant flexibility to its operations. This year, it has launched only five Ariane 5 rockets and later today, one Soyuz.

Traditionally the Soyuz is launched from its home base in Baikonur, in Kazahkstan. The problem is that at 46 degrees north, a lot of extra energy is needed to put a satellite into a equatorial geostationary orbit. Or, put another way, the Soyuz’s payload for insertion into a geostationary orbit from Baikonur was just short of two tonnes. Launch the same rocket from French Guiana and it can now take a typical three tonne communications satellite up into geostationary orbit.

The Sinnamary launch site is a copy of the one in Baikonur but with one major difference. Whereas the original was assembled lying down and the payload was attached with the rocket horizontal, the new site has a hangar where the satellite can be attached with the rocket erect and allows for practically any satellite that can be launched on an Ariane 5 to be launched on a Soyuz without redesign.

The market is still very much one of broadcast communication satellites. The European and North American markets are much more integrated with a handful of satellites covering large regions, but in Asia, there still is a tendency for each country to have and use its own satellite.

Arianespace sent up Thailand’s own IPStar broadband satellite back in 2005. Today, there is a trend to more data satellites and technology has made the Soyuz at Guiana hit the sweet spot. Thaicom 4 weighed 6.8 tonnes but a modern equivalent with KA transponders instead of KU band transponders would weigh less than half, and thus could be lifted with the new configuration.

Much of the Australian outback relies on IP Star for data connectivity as do many of Indonesia’s smaller islands. There is a growing demand for connectivity, despite the huge latency it takes a radio signal to make the 72,000 kilometre round trip.

Soyuz 1 was launched in 1966 and manned flights followed a year later. Despite a few mishaps in the early years, it has persevered and with the ending of NASA’s Space Shuttle programme, today the Soyuz rocket, with its fundamental design unchanged over the years, finds itself the only access that man has to space. Though the Ariane 5 is also designed for manned launches, it has never yet done so.

Early in the programme, the Space Shuttle did launch a number of commercial satellites. Officially, a shuttle launch cost around 450 million dollars, almost five times what Arianespace charges for its disposable launches, but many say the real cost was much, much higher.

Arianespace held an event in Bangkok on the Soyuz launch from French Guiana stressing the increased flexibility that the rocket gave the company in addition to its existing Ariane 5. The reason was soon made clear. The company had launched all five of Thailand’s communications satellites and has been working hard to secure the Thaicom 6 launch, due sometime in 2013. But ultimately, this was awarded to SpaceX, a new US start-up that undercut Arianespace’s cost by half.

But SpaceX has yet to launch a satellite into geosynchronous orbit and there are numerous risks - and discount - in being the first. On the other hand, SpaceX thinks that Arianespace’s old technology is simply overpriced. If the project runs into delays trouble, Arianespace still hopes to win back the launch.

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