Perched between Brazil and Suriname lies French Guiana, Europe’s gateway to the galaxy. It might boast a majestic rainforest, but as a French territory it is still part of the European Union and even uses the euro as its currency. A space centre was located near Kourou more than 50 years ago to take advantage of French Guiana’s location close to the equator, meaning space rockets launched from here benefit from an extra velocity of 460 metres per second when they are launched eastward.
The Guiana Space Centre (CSG) in Kourou, 7,300 kilometres away from Brussels, represents a window into space. With half a dozen launches every year, the whole city depends on space-related activities. Technicians from all over the world come to Korou, depending on the nationality of the communication satellites destined to defy gravity on board of Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket.
“Right here, you can run into Germans, Italians or Spanish people,” said Emmanuel Toko, CEO of Kourou’s press club. “ Thanks to CSG, Kourou looks like a typical European city.” He added: “We consider ourselves Amazonian indigenous people, Guyanese, French, and last but certainly not least, European. Young people understand and feel this today. And when you feel European, there is no reason why you cannot conquer the world.”
For the past three years, the space centre has also worked with Russian Soyuz rockets and Italian Vega rockets, which reinforces Europe’s presence. And the projects are numerous.
“We used to fear that with a single launcher, space development could come to an end,” said Jacquy Pierre-Marie, vice-president of Guiana’s chamber of industry and commerce, in charge of international relations. “Today, we can be much more optimistic as we now have three different launchers.”
The Galileo satellites, developed as part of a €5 billion European programme, are also being launched from Kourou. They will allow Europe to have its own global navigation system, no longer relying on the US's GPS system. With a total of 28 satellites set to be launched, this new location system should offer precision positioning to within one metre. Other European initiatives, such as Copernicus, include tracking space debris, improving weather forecasting and environmental monitoring with targeted satellites. The Sentinel-1A, the last one to go into orbit, can see the Earth day and night, regardless of clouds, providing alerts of extreme weather as well as security issues.
“Nothing would be the same without all this European activity,” said Pierre-Marie. “These are powerful, solid companies that invest and create local jobs and allow local stores to stay in business.”
The European Space Agency (ESA) is also pleased to have a launch base in French Guiana and not just for practical reasons. “From a symbolic perspective, it is very important for us to have set foot on South American ground,” explained Fernando Doblas, ESA’s head of communication. “Looking down from the stars we don’t see borders.”