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article imageGuiana Space Centre to get new rocket tower in the jungle

By Karen Graham     Dec 8, 2018 in Science
In a remote corner of a South American jungle, Europe’s new rocket launch tower is being built. French engineers working on the project in Kourou in French Guiana, affectionately call it a “moveable Eiffel Tower," even though it looks a bit boxey.
To say The Guiana Space Centre is in a remote location is actually an understatement. The space facility in Kourou is located about 500 kilometrers (310 miles) north of the equator, at a latitude of 5°. Close to but not exactly on the Equator.
French Guiana lies on the north Atlantic coast of South America in the Guyanas. Since 1981, French Guianna is the only territory of the mainland Americas that is still part of a European country. The country is sparsley populated, with an estimated population in 2018 of 281,612 people, but has the highest nominal GDP per capita in South America.
The major portion of its economy derives from jobs and businesses associated with the presence of the Guiana Space Centre, now the European Space Agency's primary launch site near the equator. There is very little manufacturing or agriculture, because the soil in French Guianna is some of the poorest in the world.
Allée du Bac  Kourou  French Guiana.
Allée du Bac, Kourou, French Guiana.
Arria Belli (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The spaceport in the jungle
In 1964 the Kourou site became the spaceport of France. In 1975, France offered to share Kourou with ESA. Now, the ESA, the French space agency CNES (National Centre for Space Studies), and the commercial companies Arianespace and Azercosmos conduct launches from Kourou.
But being so close to the Equator has its advantages and disadvantages. For one thing, it is very hot and humid in the tropical rainforest climate. Every building at the spaceport is under continuous attack from the forest. Their exteriors are streaked green with algae, moss and mould.
And it is a continual job keeping the rainforest from intruding back into what used to be its natural habitat - now replaced with huge buildings and giant erector set-sized launch towers.
Ariane 5 lifting off from the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou  French Guiana. Created: 29 August 2013
Ariane 5 lifting off from the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana. Created: 29 August 2013
Spotting973 (CC BY-SA 2.0)
But with all the discomfort the climate might bring, there are two advantages to having a spaceport in the jungle. Number one, it is near the equator, so that less energy is required to maneuver a spacecraft into an equatorial, geostationary orbit. Rockets can be launched into orbits with an inclination of as low as ~6°. The lowest inclination a rocket from Cape Canaveral could be launched to is 28.5°
Secondly, there is open sea to the east, so that lower stages of rockets and debris from launch failures are unlikely to fall on human habitations. Rockets launch to the east to take advantage of the angular momentum provided by Earth's rotation.
The new Launch tower for Ariane 6
According to the BBC's Richard Hollingham, to get the best view of the spaceport and the new launch tower being built, it is necessary to make a sweaty and strenous climb up a hill to get a good overview of the location. But then Hollingham douses your interest when he talks about the roofed wooden observation deck at the top.
Soyuz launch tower at European spaceport at Kourou
Soyuz launch tower at European spaceport at Kourou
Denys (CC BY 3.0)
There's a wooden sign with the words "Casa Araignées" (‘House of Spiders’) scrawled on it above the entrance. And yes, everywhere you look there are hand-sized spiders all about. The only way to see the magnificent view is to pick your way through the spiders and their webs.
But when you do, you will see the three launch towers for Europe’s three rockets: Ariane 5, Soyuz and Vega. The Ariane 5 has been flying since 1996, and like SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, the Ariane 5 has become the "workhorse" for Europe's space endeavors.
"An Ariane 5 recently carried the giant BepiColombo spacecraft on the first stage of its long journey to Mercury. It’s also launched some of the world’s largest telecommunications, weather and navigation satellites," reports the BBC.
An artist s depiction of the Ariane 6 main stage after strap-on booster separation.
An artist's depiction of the Ariane 6 main stage after strap-on booster separation.
ESA
The Moveable Eifle Tower in the jungle
Getting a ride on an Ariane rocket averages about $100 million (£78m) - several 10's of million more than a ride on a Falcon 9. But in response, Europe is building Ariane 6 - a 62 meters-high (204 feet), multi-stage rocket, capable of launching medium and large spacecraft into a variety of different orbits.
“We’re aiming to make something that will be very attractive in terms of price and service to customers,” says Charlotte Beskow, head of Esa in Kourou, who readily admits cost isn’t the only factor.
“We also have the political will to have our own independent access to space, if we don’t have our own European launchpad then we will always be dependent on others.” So, to that end, engineers are building the new launch tower fir the Ariane 6.
As you can see in the short video above, the framework for the launch tower involved a lot of work. Over the next few months, the 90 meter high (297ft) gantry will be covered in metal panels and the interior fitted with decks to encase the rocket.
More about Guiana space center, ariane 5, ariane 6, tropical climate, Science