To get the best view of the space launch base in Kourou, French Guiana, you need to climb a steep hill in the middle of the rainforest. The walk is arduous. But this is not the worst of the journey.
At the top, the trees give way to a wooden observation platform with the sign “Casa Araignées” (“House of Spiders”) at the entrance. On all sides, there are spiders the size of a hand, and its webs cover the wooden beams.
It is necessary to go through them carefully (the idea of getting entangled in a giant spider’s web is really terrifying) to observe the landscape of the forest and the launching towers of three rockets: Ariane 5, Soyuz and Vega.
The largest of them, the Ariane 5, has been flying since 1996 and, despite a catastrophic inaugural mission, proved to be the most reliable way in the world to launch satellites into orbit and beyond. An Ariane 5 has recently transported the gigantic BepiColombo spacecraft in the first stage of its long voyage to Mercury. It has also launched some of the world’s largest telecommunications, weather and navigation satellites.
But hitchhiking on an Ariane 5 is expensive. Launching it costs around $ 100 million (R $ 370 million) – exact costs are rarely disclosed. Younger competitors, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, promise the same service with savings of tens of millions of dollars.
In response, Europe is building the Ariane 6 – a multi-stage rocket of 62 meters high, capable of launching medium and large spacecraft in different orbits. With its development costing 2.4 billion euros ($ 10 billion) and funded by the European Space Agency (ESA), everything in the new rocket launcher was designed to be cheaper and more efficient than Ariane 5.
“Our goal is to do something that is very attractive in terms of price and customer service,” says Charlotte Beskow, ESA chief in Kourou, who admits cost is not the only factor. “We also have the political will to have our own access to space so that we do not depend on others.”
Equipped with advanced engines and new solid boosters, the Ariane 6 will have regular and supersonic versions depending on the mass and orbital destination of the payload. It is also acquiring a new launch pad and a porch – a structure that French design engineers fondly describe as “Mobile Eiffel Tower”.
So far, the 90-meter-tall portico is just a giant beams structure. But in the coming months, it will be covered by metal panels. Unlike its predecessor, the Ariane 6 will be mounted horizontally and then hoisted in the launch tower to complete assembly, filling and testing. Therefore, a few hours before launch, the entire structure will be removed in rails to free up space for the rocket on the launch pad.
“That’s what we did in the old days of Ariane 4 and that’s what we do with Vega and Soyuz, so it’s a proven technology,” says Beskow. “This time we’re doing it on a larger scale, but it’s faster, more efficient, allows people to work in safe conditions and, from a meteorological point of view, it’s more convenient.”
The launch from the equator – where Earth rotates faster than other latitudes – helps give the rocket an extra boost into orbit. The downside is the tropical climate. The outer areas are filled with algae, moss and mold. Therefore, the interior of the launch tower will be air-conditioned and surrounded by lightning rods to protect the rocket and staff.
It now takes 35 days to prepare an Ariane 5 for launch. Rockets need to be transported between different facilities on an extensive rail network. With Ariane 6, the goal is to reduce this time to just 12 days.
“The final product will be very simple, very aerodynamic, it will look elegant – that’s how we’ll save time,” says Beskow. “There will be fewer manipulations, operations, transportation and bottlenecks – it should provide faster response times, faster ways to get to space.”
But building a new launch pad is just part of the engineering challenge. The most impressive is below ground. From the surface, the launch pad will look like a steel plate and concrete, but once completed, its support structure will reach about 30 feet below the ground.
On each side, a pair of tunnels 20 meters wide will be built to taper the exhaust from the flames and carry the water thrown into the rocket during launch.
“We call this a flood – we throw in a lot of water to reduce the vibrations in the launcher and the payload,” explains Beskow. “This also reduces toxic side effects, so it’s very important.”
At the moment, the European launch complex is a vast construction site with 600 workers employed in two shifts. As I watch the scene, seven tall, thin cranes sway, concrete and rubble emerge at the front, sparks fly as the technicians weld the beams, and there is a constant noise.
With the first Ariane 6 coming off the production line in 2019, and the first launch scheduled for 2020, time is running out. But the engineer responsible, Frédéric Munos, exudes a quiet confidence. After all, this is your fifth launch pad.
“We have to do this correctly, with good design and no accidents,” says Munos, naturally. “We will be satisfied in the first launch, which will be seen by the eyes of the world.”
Earlier this year, when SpaceX launched its Heavy Falcon at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, thousands of people traveled to watch the launch. As French Guiana is relatively isolated, fewer people should personally witness the launch of an Ariane 6.
“The problem is that he’s in an ideal, but remote location. I’d love for more people to come here to see him, just like they’re going to Houston and Kennedy,” he says. “This is a European asset and watching it will be jaw-dropping.”
If you decide to pay a visit, just remember one thing: beware of the giant spiders.