Cluster II team visits the Baikonour catacombs
27 October 1999For the last four decades, thousands of rockets have taken off from thelaunch pads atBaikonour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, but few Westerners have had theopportunityto see the facilities at close quarters. During a recent visit to the oncesecretcosmodrome, members of the Cluster II project management team andrepresentativesof industry were given a VIP tour of the Soyuz launch complex. (*) Nextsummer, thissite will be a scene of frenetic activity as the four Cluster II satellitesare carried intoorbit in dual Soyuz launches.
The main purpose of the ESA team's visit was to discuss technical details in preparation for next year's launch campaign. However, one of the highlights of the stay came when the visitors were allowed to examine pad 6, which has now been modified for launch of the Soyuz launcher with its new Fregat upper stage.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the visit was a tour of the network of subterranean 'catacombs' beneath the launch pad, and the bunker which contains the launch control room.
"It is an amazing experience walking through these passages and rooms which have seen so many historic events," commented John Ellwood, Cluster II project manager.
The maze of narrow tunnels which makes up the 'catacombs' will contain the electrical ground support equipment and battery charging units required during the Cluster II countdown. This system will be used until the spacecraft switch to internal batteries, 10 minutes prior to lift off.
Electrical power to the 'catacombs' comes from a 200 metre long underground cable which runs from the main bunker, the command centre for the entire pad. The bunker, which will be the home for the Cluster II team during the countdown, comprises half a dozen rooms and covers some 300 sq. metres.
Telemetry from the spacecraft is displayed on computer screens in the bunker, allowing engineers to monitor such spacecraft characteristics as temperature and voltage. The telemetry and command link from the bunker to the spacecraft will be maintained until the umbilical cable is pulled free of the rocket, immediately before lift-off.
When the clock reaches zero, the launch controller will turn a special key, following the time-honoured tradition established in the days of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. As the Soyuz rocket engines are ignited, a high stream of air will be blown over the pad to avoid possible fire damage from the engines flames
The unique mission to send four identical spacecraft to explore near-Earth space will be under way.
(*) Representatives of two other ESA science missions (Integral and Mars Express) that will also use Russian rockets attended Baikonour at the same time. Mars Express is scheduled to lift off on board a Soyuz-Fregat in 2003, while Integral will be launched by a Proton in 2001.