The Soyuz in Guiana programme was launched by CNES at the start of the 2000s with three objectives in mind:
- Round out the range of launchers operated from the CSG at a time when Ariane 4 was being retired from the medium-lift launch services market. With a lift capacity of 3.2 tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) and 4.8 tonnes to low Earth orbit (LEO), Soyuz was designed to fill the gap between the European Vega light launcher (300 kg to 2 tonnes to LEO) and the Ariane 5 heavy-lift launcher (5.9 to 10 tonnes to GTO).
- Develop close, long-term space cooperation with Russia in the domain of launchers.
- Afford the prospect of launching crewed spaceflights from the CSG.
The programme thus enabled military satellites that could not have been exported to Russia to be launched on the venerable Soyuz, and European institutional satellites like Galileo to be orbited from Europe’s spaceport.
Soyuz traces its lineage back to the Vostok launcher, itself derived from the R-4 Semyorka ballistic missile. This legendary family of launchers is the one that orbited the first-ever satellite (Sputnik 1 in 1957), the first living being (Laïka the dog in 1957), the first man (Yuri Gagarin in 1961) and the first woman (Valentina Tereshkova in 1963). All told, as of 2019 Soyuz’s track record had reached 1,900 launches with a success rate of 98%. Up to 2011, Soyuz flights were conducted exclusively from the Plessetsk Cosmodrome in Russia and the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Since 2011, it has also operated from French Guiana.
12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin lifted off aboard the Vostok 1 launcher, Soyuz’s predecessor. Credits: Roscosmos.
France has been working in space with Russia since 1966 and was the initiator of the project to launch Soyuz from French Guiana.
- 1999: first French study to gauge the feasibility of operating Soyuz from the CSG. The Russians had envisioned this option since the formation of Starsem in 1996.
- End 2001: France and Russia initiate first official project talks.
- May 2002: Arianespace, the Russian federal space agency (then Rosaviakosmos) and Starsem sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to operate Soyuz in French Guiana. This MoU sets out the principles for task sharing between Europe and Russia, as well as launcher acquisition policy.
- June 2002: ESA Council gives the green light for the French Guiana spaceport to accommodate the Russian Soyuz launcher.
- September 2002 to July 2003: preliminary design study pre-funded jointly for France by CNES, Arianespace and Starsem, and for Russia by the Russian federal space agency and Russian firms TsSKB-Progress, KBOM and NPO Lavochkin.
- May 2003: European ministers approve the programme resolution tabled by ESA.
- November 2003: France and the Russian Federation sign an intergovernmental agreement confirming their desire to enable commercial Soyuz launches from French Guiana. This agreement lays the legal foundation for construction of the Soyuz launch complex at the CSG and clarifies the conditions under which France is to authorize Soyuz launches from the base and Russia to supply the launchers.
Aerial view of the ELS Soyuz launch complex under construction at the CSG in 2009. Credits: ESA/Stéphane Corvaja, 2009.
- February 2004: ESA Council meeting at which seven member states—Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland—sign up to the Soyuz in Guiana programme. Arianespace injects its own funding to cover activities incumbent on Russia. Earthworks start at the CSG for construction of the Soyuz launch complex (ELS).
- April 2004: ESA appoints CNES system architect and lead contractor for the industry consortium.
- July 2004: the preliminary project is altered to incorporate a mobile gantry in the ELS design in place of a fixed launch tower.
- December 2004: ESA Council gives the official go-ahead for the Soyuz at CSG programme.
- January 2005: phase 2 of earthworks begins at the CSG.
- February 2007: construction of ELS buildings and launch pad begins.
- May 2011: ELS completed.
- October 2011: First Soyuz flight from the CSG.
Soyuz ST is the ‘Special Tropics’ variant of the Soyuz-2 launcher, which differs from Soyuz-1 in three ways:
- the Fregat upper stage developed by Russian manufacturer NPO Lavochkin from the propulsion system used for Russia’s Martian space probes replaces the Ikar stage;
- the first and second stage engines (for Soyuz 2-1a and Soyuz ST-A) and the third stage (for Soyuz 2-1b and Soyuz ST-B) are replaced by more powerful ones;
- the analogue telemetry and control system is replaced by a more sophisticated digital one.
Soyuz ST also features adaptations to weather conditions in French Guiana—2,800 mm of yearly rainfall in Kourou as against 290 mm a year in Baikonur—and to the safety of people and populations during launches in line with French regulations.
Soyuz comes from the Russian word Ñîþç, meaning union. It was originally called "Soyuz launcher" or "Soyuz U", until it eventually adopted the same name as its passenger spacecraft.