Kourou, the European spaceport

Kourou, the European spaceport, was not chosen by chance to become this special land, formerly of the French space program, and today of iconic European missions, and satellites from around the world. Favourable climate, near the equator, opening onto the ocean… Beyond these natural assets, if the CSG (Centre Spatial Guyanais), the Guiana Space Center, Europe’s spaceport, retains its place in the international chessboard, it is because it knows how to continually adapt to the expectations of satellite customers, and technological developments in the field of launchers and ground means.

Kourou and France

If the first Diamant rocket, launched from Hammaguir, raises France to the rank of third space power in the world (after the U.S.S.R. and the United States of America), it is indeed in Kourou that this adventure, then French, will take the scale of an epic. While France launches its first satellite, Astérix, since Algeria in 1965, Kourou embraces its fate as a land predestined for space activities. Barely four years after the decision to settle in Kourou, the European spaceport will launch its first sounding rocket, Véronique. It was April 9, 1968; the launch marks the operational qualification of the CSG. Then, more than three hundred and fifty rockets will be launched from French Guiana between 1968 and 1992.

Each flight of one of these machines marked a step towards mastering the ground facilities of a launch pad, and the birth of the Ariane program. It is this technical excellence supported by the unwavering political will of the European collaboration to guarantee an autonomous access to outer space that traces even today the contours of the future of Kourou, the European spaceport. What makes Kourou a privileged land: a wide opening on the Atlantic Ocean, and the possibility of launching space assets towards the East, without risk for the population and the surrounding goods, the proximity of the equator which allows to benefit the maximum of the energy provided by the speed of the rotation of the Earth (effect of slingshot), and thus makes gain the launcher a precious complement of speed, a vast, sparsely inhabited territory, and an area sheltered from cyclones.

Kourou, the European spaceport, is where the first French spacecraft will be assembled, but also where crucial missions for the young space power will start from. In 1979, France decided to have its own telecommunications system, already facing the American supremacy in this area. It is from Kourou that the two generations of the first Telecom satellites will fly away. With seven launches between 1984 and 1996, the constellation will offer the first telecommunications services to businesses and citizens of France.

In the field of observation, Kourou, the European spaceport, sees the entire constellation SPOT (Earth Observatory System). Started in 1977, the history of these satellites designed by CNES intertwines with that of the Ariane family. The first is launched in 1986 aboard an Ariane 1, and the last in May 2002 aboard an Ariane 4. SPOT then offers a vision of more precise Earth, and opens a plethora of applications of cartography to measuring the impact of natural disasters.

Today, France still relies on the CSG for its strategic missions in the field of defense. A recent example is the launch in December 2018 of the CSO (Optical Space Component) satellite. Under CNES contracting authority, these military observation satellites must contribute to strengthening the capabilities of the French forces in the field of space intelligence, support and conduct of operations on battlefields.

Kourou, the European spaceport and Europe

Following an agreement concluded between the French Government and the European Space Agency (ESA) in 1975, the CSG becomes Europe’s spaceport, the launching ground for the European launchers Ariane and Vega. Today, with Ariane 5, Vega and Soyuz, the CSG carries out ten to twelve launches a year but, above all, it guarantees autonomous access to outer space for the twenty-two ESA member states, and for space programs of the European Union.

Kourou, the European spaceport, has played a major role for Europe. From Earth observation to planetary exploration, the CSG teams have made and launched crucial missions for science, Europe and its citizens. It was from Kourou, aboard Soyuz and then Ariane 5, that the satellites of the Galileo constellation were put into orbit, guaranteeing an autonomous access to geolocation data, a European response to the U.S. GPS (Global Positioning System), the Russian GLONASS, and the Chinese Baidu.

There has also been the ATV, the cargo ship of the International Space Station (ISS), launched between 2008 and 2014, the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle or IXV (an atmospheric re-entry test vehicle, launched in 2015), the same year as LISA Pathfinder (observing gravitational waves). More than thirty years ago, ESA launched Giotto, a European robotic spacecraft mission from the European Space Agency. The spacecraft flew by and studied Halley’s Comet, and in doing so, became the first spacecraft to make close up observations of a comet. It was in July 1985, aboard an Ariane 1. It was then the first mission of ESA to deep space. In the field of exploration, there has also been Rosetta, which was a space probe built by the European Space Agency, and launched on March 2, 2004 from Kourou, the European spaceport.

More recently, in 2018, BepiColombo flew from Kourou, the European spaceport, to join the planet Mercury. In terms of Earth observation, there has been TOPEX/Poseidon, launched from the CSG in 1992 aboard an Ariane 4, or the Pléiades constellation. It is also from Kourou that the European meteorological satellites of the European organisation EUMETSAT where launched from. After the first successful launch of Ariane 1, on December 24, 1979, CNES created Arianespace and brought Europe into the commercial market. Among the first customers, Intelsat has been launching since the CSG since 1983. One of its satellites was aboard Ariane 5 for its hundredth launch last year.

It was in 1984 that the first commercial flight under the banner of the Arianespace operator took place. It allowed the Spacenet 1 U.S. satellite to go into orbit. From its first steps on the commercial market, Kourou, the European spaceport has attracted American customers but not only. Among the historical customers, hosted in Kourou on several occasions, there has been for example the European Eutelsat, the Japanese JSAT, or the Indian Space Agency, which has been a loyal user of Ariane since the beginning. It was at the end of the 1980s that the order schedule was filled; rates increased to ten to twelve launches per year; Arianespace is the world leader for commercial launches. Today, customers come from all over the world to launch from the CSG, which has become a real window of French Guiana to the world.

With the Ariane saga, and the entry of Europe into the commercial arena, outer space is gradually becoming a buoyant economic sector in French Guiana. Today, according to the latest figures from INSEE published recently, outer space represents fifteen per cent of the wealth creation of the region, fifty-eight million American dollars in tax revenues, including twenty-two per cent of the granting of the ocean, and eleven per cent of investment. Forty companies are located on the launch base, whether their activity is directly related to the space sector, or the services necessary for its development and maintenance in operational condition. In French Guiana, outer space accounts for more than four thousand and five hundred direct, indirect and induced jobs within and outside the CSG, representing nine per cent of the region’s active population.

Space arrived by surprise in French Guiana, and it is now rooted in this territory, and has become a symbol and a partner of its development. CNES, according to the orientations defined by its supervisory ministries, contributes to the development of the territory on projects for the future of French Guiana, alongside the local authorities, and public partners. It is from Kourou — and Sinnamary, because the CSG is established on these two cities — that the European space has today to face the more and more rough competition. To this end, Kourou, the European spaceport, is preparing to host at the turn of the decade, Vega-C and Ariane 6, new European launchers. Kourou, the European spaceport, also has to modernise, in its infrastructures and its processes, to remain a reliable, adaptable, and competitive. An ambitious modernisation program is being prepared, with the faithful support of the European Space Agency (ESA) and its Member States.