A launcher to complement Ariane 5 and Vega
Soyuz in French Guiana was the result of a partnership between Russia and Europe, and offered customers a launcher to carry satellites smaller than those launched by Ariane 5 and larger than those launched by Vega. From the GSC, the Russian launcher can send satellites of up to 3 tonnes into geostationary orbit (36,000 km altitude) and 5 tonnes into low Earth orbit (between 300 and 1,000 km).
A flexible launcher
Soyuz has carried out a variety of missions from the GSC, to geostationary, medium or sun-synchronous orbits. Several Soyuz launches have been used to carry scientific satellites. These include:
- CHEOPS (launched in 2019) which studies exoplanets in detail
- MetOp (2018), which has more than a dozen meteorological instruments to monitor the climate
- Gaia (2013), which aims to map more than a billion stars in 3D
- Pleiades (2011 and 2012), which provides very high resolution images of the Earth.
- Galileo (9 launches from 2011 to 2021), the European navigation system, more accurate than GPS
Did you know ?
In Russian, Soyuz means “union”
Soyuz, a monument of space history
The Soyuz launcher has existed since the beginning of the space adventure. It launched the first Sputnik satellite in 1957 and carried Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space in 1961. It usually lifts off from the base in Baikonur (Kazakhstan) or in Plesetsk and Vostochny (Russia). With more than 1,850 launches and a failure rate of less than 3 %, Soyuz is the most reliable launcher in the world. Today, Soyuz is used for manned and unmanned flights to the International Space Station and for commercial flights.
Soyouz in figures
Soyuz is a medium-class launcher compared to the other GSC launchers, Ariane 5 and Vega. It weighs 308 tonnes at lift-off, while Ariane 5 weighs 780 tonnes and Vega 138 tonnes. It consists of a core body of three stages surrounded by four thrusters.
The first stage consists of the four boosters (called blocks B, G, V, D). These boosters propel the launcher into the sky. Each thruster is equipped with an engine that runs on liquid oxygen and kerosene.
Like the boosters, the second and third stages use liquid oxygen and kerosene.
The vehicle equipment bay is the launcher's electronic brain. It houses Soyuz’s monitoring and guidance system.
The Fregat upper stage uses a different fuel from the other stages: nitrogen tetroxide and UDMH, also called dimethylhydrazine. It can be stopped out and re-ignited several times to adjust the launcher's trajectory to its mission.
The fairing is the top end of the launcher. It protects the satellites that are placed inside.
More information on the launcher on the dedicated CNES website.
A launcher adapted to French Guiana
To enable Soyuz to lift off from the GSC, Roscosmos and European Space Agency teams made a few adaptations to the original Russian launcher by:
- taking the trajectories from French Guiana into account and making associated changes to the flight software;
- taking the natural environment in French Guiana into account;
- integrating on-board equipment (transponders, receivers, antennas) to track the launcher in flight by radar and to receive, process and report orders from the ground;
- taking the French Space Operations Act (LOS) into account.
Soyuz carries larger satellites from French Guiana
By lifting off from the GSC, Soyuz can increase its capacity to lift to geostationary transfer orbit. Because Guiana is closer to the equator - where the speed of the Earth is the greatest - the launcher benefits from an extra “thrust”, allowing it to carry larger satellites with less fuel. With an identical configuration, a Soyuz carrying a mass of 3 tonnes from the GSC will only be able to carry 1.7 tonnes from Baikonur.
Arrival of launcher components
As with Ariane 5 and Vega, the Soyuz components arrive in French Guiana by ship. Unloaded at the Pariacabo port in Kourou, they are then transported to the Soyuz launch complex and its assembly building, the MIK.
In the Soyuz assembly building, the launcher takes shape: stages 1, 2 and 3 are assembled to form the lower part of the launcher, the tri-stage.
Roll-out to the launch zone
The tri-stage launcher is transported to the launch zone. As in Russia, it is customary at the GSC to accompany the launcher during this transfer between the assembly building and the launch zone. Once it has arrived, the launcher is hoisted to a vertical position. The countdown begins: Soyuz cannot remain in a vertical position for more than 10 days. Its mobile gantry crane then moves closer, so that further preparation operations can be carried out.
Fregat stage filling and assembly of the fairing
While the lower part of the launcher is being assembled, the Fregat, which is the upper stage, is filled with propellants. This operation takes place in a dedicated building, the FCube (Fregat Fuelling Facility). The Fregat stage is then assembled with the satellites and the fairing in the GSC clean rooms: the upper part of the launcher is ready. It is then transported to the launch zone.
The upper part of Soyuz is transported to the launch zone. Under the gantry, it is assembled onto the launcher. It consists of the Fregat stage and the satellites under the fairing and is mounted at the top of the launcher.
Five hours before lift-off, filling of the tri-stage launcher with propellants begins. This operation takes place only if all the launch conditions are met: once the first drop of kerosene has been injected into the Soyuz tank, there are only 52 hours left to carry out the launch.
At launch time, if all conditions are met, the tri-stage is ignited. The arms holding Soyuz open outward to release the launcher: the mission begins.
At lift-off time, the first and second stages of the launcher are ignited. The arms that maintain Soyuz on its launch pad open outward to allow the launcher to lift off.
After about two minutes of flight, the four boosters separate from the launcher and move away from it. Less than two minutes later, the fairing is ejected, as the low density of the atmosphere no longer poses a risk to the satellite. After more than four minutes of flight, it is the turn of the second stage to be jettisoned. The third stage then starts up and consumes its fuel in about five minutes before separating in turn.
Entry into orbit and end of mission
Once the first three stages have separated from the launcher, Soyuz consists only of the Fregat stage and its satellite(s). The Fregat is re-ignitable, and can alternate between the thrust phases and the ballistic phases (without engine thrust) in order to find the optimum trajectory.
Once the satellites have been put into orbit, the Fregat stage deorbits to avoid the accumulation of space debris in orbit.
Infrastructure for Soyuz
To prepare and launch Soyuz from the Guiana Space Centre, the launcher has its own facilities. They are located in the Soyuz launch complex, in the town of Sinnamary.
|Flight name||Date||Payload||Target orbit||Mission status|
|VS01||21/10/2011||Galileo IOV PFM + Galileo IOV FM2||Moyenne||Succès|
|VS02||17/12/2011||Pléiades 1 A + SSOT + Elisa (4 satellites)||Héliosynchrone||Succès|
|VS03||12/10/2012||Galileo IOV FM3 + Galileo IOV FM4||Moyenne||Succès|
|VS05||25/06/2013||O3b F1 (4 satellites)||Moyenne||Succès|
|VS06||19/12/2013||Gaia||Point de Lagrange 2||Succès|
|VS08||10/07/2014||O3b F2 (4 satellites)||Moyenne||Échec partiel|
|VS09||22/08/2014||Galileo FOC FM1 + Galileo FOC FM2||Moyenne||Succès|
|VS10||18/12/2014||O3b F13 (4 satellites)||Moyenne||Succès|
|VS11||27/03/2015||Galileo FOC FM3 + Galileo FOC FM4||Moyenne||Succès|
|VS12||11/09/2015||Galileo FOC FM5 + Galileo FOC FM6||Moyenne||Succès|
|VS13||17/12/2015||Galileo FOC FM7 + Galileo FOC FM8||Moyenne||Succès|
|VS14||25/04/2016||Sentinel-1B + Microscope + 3 micro-satellites||Héliosynchrone||Succès|
|VS15||24/05/2016||Galileo FOC FM9 + Galileo FOC FM10||Moyenne||Succès|
|VS18||09/03/2018||O3b F4 (4 satellites)||Moyenne||Succès|
|VS21||27/02/2019||OneWeb F6 (6 satellites)||Basse||Succès|
|VS22||04/04/2019||O3b F5 (4 satellites)||Moyenne||Succès|
|VS23||18/12/2019||COSMO-SkyMed 2de génération + CHEOPS + 3 nano-satellites||Héliosynchrone||Succès|
|VS26||04/12/2021||Galileo FOC-M9 (23 - 24)||Moyenne||Succès|
|VS27||10/02/2022||OneWeb (34 satellites)||Basse||Succès|