French Guiana Satellite
||30 September 2012 07:00
|Show: ||Carte Blanche|
This coastline off South America has seen its fair share of human misery. French Guiana was once notorious for its jails on Devil's Island and the mainland where only 10% of the prisoners who came here ever survived.
Almost everywhere you look is impenetrable jungle. Electric blue butterflies flit through the heat, raindrops fall from the canopy, sweat drips down your back. This equatorial rainforest surrounded by Brazil and Suriname seems like the most unlikely place to find Europe's state-of-the-art space-port.
Now rocket science has replaced jungle justice, as the European Space Agency uses this French territory close to the equator for easy and cheaper access to Space.
My guide from Arianespace, Mario De Lepine, joked that they are like the DHL of Space, delivering satellites into their positions around the Equator. I was there to witness one such delivery - MultiChoice was about to launch its plans for the future on the Intelsat 20.
CEO Collins Khumalo was at the launch.
Collins Khumalo (CEO: MultiChoice): "This is the biggest event in MultiChoice's life for the next 10 to 15 years."
With the advent of High Definition, MultiChoice wants to expand, and that means bigger capacity on a bigger satellite.
Imtiaz Patel is the group CEO.
Imtiaz Patel (Group CEO: MultiChoice): "It's a moment... when you look back, it will be a very big moment in the life of the company. And I think you will see over the next 18 months an unfolding scenario of new services, new opportunities, new channels, new excitement."
Outside the Jupiter Centre in Kourou there's an air of excitement too, as the countdown begins.
10 000 Europeans have worked for three years to produce the Ariane 5, the big daddy of rockets or launchers, as they call it.
Bongani Bingwa (Carte Blanche Presenter): "In my wildest dreams I never thought I would stand this close to an actual rocket. This is the Ariane 5 which will soon launch a powerful satellite. If you look closely, you may even see a South African flag on it - we are playing with the big boys now!"
Everything to do with these rockets is big: the risk, the cost, the scale, the fuel consumption.
Within the space of two minutes the Ariane 5 will use the same amount of fuel we did on an eight-hour journey from Paris across the Atlantic to French Guiana.
One of the architects of the project is Melt Loubser.
Melt Loubser (Senior Manager: Technology Operations, MultiChoice): "The fuel - the liquid hydrogen and oxygen - gets filled up to the last minute, then the entire Ariane 5 with its payload weighs nearly 800 tonnes. Once there is lift-off, it burns round about five tonnes per second."
With less than 24 hours to launch, we were surprised by the air of calm at Arianespace head- quarters where I met vice president Patrick Loire.
Bongani: "Patrick, is this just another day at the office for you, or is there real excitement about this launch?"
Patrick Loire (VP Arianespace Kourou): "Of course excitement for tomorrow because it's a result of years of work, you know."
Bongani: "So really this is your baby?"
Patrick: "Yes, it's a kind of baby for us. Of course, yes!"
It's an expensive baby: the cost of the launch is about $100-million, add the satellite at $300-million and you are looking at US$500-million for a single launch. So the premiums for this launch are not for the feint hearted.
Melt: "Just to give you an indication - the launch insurance is round about $80-million for five minutes. That is what the insurance will insure Ariane 5 for."
And one can't help feeling a childlike excitement around the Ariane 5.
Bongani: "As awesome as this looks, the real work begins after the launch, hundreds of kilometres above the Earth."
In an elegant series of manoeuvres the Ariane 5 rocket will release the Intelsat 20 into its transitory orbit before it eventually lands in its final orbital slot.
It's a kind of parking space around the Equator. Satellites from around the world each have their own slots. These slots are like beachfront properties: expensive, limited and in demand.
Jean-Luc Froeliger (Senior Director: Space Systems Acquisition, Intelsat): "Geostationary altitude is very crowded and we will keep it in a very tight window at that exact position."
Jean-Luc Froeliger is a satellite engineer for Intelsat. They own the largest number of orbital slots in Space.
Bongani: "It may seem like a stupid question, but who do you buy the space from?"
Jean-Luc: "This is actually managed by the ITU, the International Telecommunication Union.
It's not only the position... it's also the frequency you can use."
For 18 years, this six tonne satellite will beam signals into Africa, Russia, India, Europe and into the Far East. Four years ago Gerdus Van Eeden went shopping for a new satellite to complement MultiChoice's vision of an HD future.
Gerdus van Eeden (CTO: MultiChoice): "Bongani, it's extremely impressive. It's the most powerful that Intelsat has ever launched."
A week before our arrival the satellites had already been mounted and covered by this cone [on screen] called a fairing that sits atop the rocket.
Uncovered, this is the Intelsat 20 under construction in California.
On board are about a hundred litres of fuel, lithium ion batteries and solar arrays to generate enough power to last 18 years.
When the satellite is first released it takes a few weeks before it reaches its final position.
Jean-Luc: "Actually the satellite is in an orbit that starts at 250 but goes as high as 36 000km, so the trajectory of the satellite is an ellipse. And the job of the satellite controllers will be to use the main engines, which [is] on board the satellite, to raise the altitude so that the 250km low point gets raised to 36 000. And then the elliptical trajectory will become a circle."
Twenty-four hours before launch, the rocket and its payload of satellites begin the move to the launch pad on this launch table. It's a painstakingly slow and hazardous procedure. Roads are closed - and staff park their cars facing outwards in case of emergency - as the rocket boosters are filled with 260 tonnes of solid propellant powder.
Bongani: "This is the launch control centre [on screen]; it is here where final decisions whether to launch or abort will be made."
Seven hours before launch the rocket is powered up - extensive checks begin. Then the flight software is loaded onto the on-board computers. At give hours technicians evacuate the blast danger area as fuelling 185 000kg of liquid oxygen and hydrogen begins. Should something go wrong, it's like a bomb on a launch pad.
Bongani: "What would failure mean to you?"
Patrick: "A disaster! Failure is always possible - we have to live with this situation."
For the MultiChoice team, that would mean three years of planning up in smoke. There was tension right up to the final moment because something could still have gone wrong.
Imtiaz: "When the plans are presented three years in advance and you talk about the budget plans, the technology plans, the timelines, etc, it all sounds very exciting... And it all sounds very easy. It's only when you get much closer to the time and the reality hits home of how many things can go wrong that it becomes an emotional roller coaster."
Jean-Luc: "Actually, the launch phase is the most at risk in the 20 years of the satellite. If this launch is successful, and I'm sure it will be, it will be the 50th consecutive successful launch for Ariane."
And that will translate directly into 14 HD channels, six themed movie channels, not to mention the exponential functionality it will allow for decoders of the future. So it was with some trepidation that Collins, Melt, Gerdus and I, waited for countdown on August the 2nd'.
Gerdus: "So T equals 0 is the moment when the main engine of the rocket ignites. It then takes another seven seconds of very fast computer checks and at T+ seven seconds the solid rocket boosters take over. Those are like firecrackers, if they are lit - the rocket goes!"
The rocket reaches speeds of 9.6km/s. Within two-and-a-half minutes the solid rocket boosters fall off into the Atlantic, where ships have been pre warned to stay away.
200 kilometres above the Gulf of Guinea, the fairing releases the satellite into Space. Three hours later the solar arrays are deployed.
Back on terra firma the Arianepace team have just notched up the 50th successful launch.
Gerdus: "Absolutely a picture-perfect launch."
Collins: "Then the vibrations started coming through. Ja, it's phenomenal!"
Bongani: "So if you are watching this: perfection."
Collins: "For me, going through my mind... 'now the other work begins'."
And the seamless migration of all the channels has already taken place. This very broadcast you are watching is being beamed from Intelsat 20 at 68.5 degrees east.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.