Clare Nutall in Astana -
Kazakhstan inherited the world's first and largest space centre, the Baikonur cosmodrome, from the Soviet space industry; built in the 1950s, the launch pad at the centre was where Yuri Gagarin blasted off on the first manned space rocket in 1961. Today, however, Baikonur is under a 50-year lease to Russia, and Kazakhstan has started building its own space centre in Astana.
Construction of the Kazakh national space centre started in July. The core of the centre will be the assembly, integration and testing complex (AITC), expected to cost around €130m to build and equip. This will carry out the whole spectrum of manufacturing, design, operation and testing of spacecraft and associated systems, according to Gabdullatif Murzakulov, president of Kazakhstan Gharysh Sapary (KGS), the state company set up in 2005 to develop an independent space industry in Kazakhstan.
Also within the space centre will be an earth remote sensing system (ERSS), which will be used for mapping the country, mineral and natural resources exploration and monitoring of natural disasters and ecological conditions. The project will involve building two spacecraft and a ground complex consisting of a control centre and processing centre, at a cost of €35m-40m.
KGS's third project is creating a high accuracy satellite navigation system, which will have applications for cartography, management of transportation systems, national security and other areas. KGS is currently in the middle of a tender process to select a company to work on the project.
Space for Europe
The decision to build Kazakhstan's own space centre came from President Nursultan Nazarbayev, following his visit to Thales' integration centre in Cannes, which supplies several international space centres including Baikonur. "The president decided we should build a space centre in Astana that would be at least as good as Thales' in Cannes or EADS Astrium's near Toulouse," Murzakulov tells bne. KGS has since established a joint venture with EADS Astrium, in which KGS holds 72.5% and the French company the remaining 27.5%.
"There is a Russian proverb which goes - tell me who your friend is, and I will tell you who you are. We chose to work with European technologies and selected EADS Astrium because of their brand and their experience. With their help, we think we will be able to create a complex unique among the post-Soviet countries," says Murzakulov.
Murzakulov says that the decision to work with a French partner does not mean a breach with Russia. "On a political level we have a very friendly relationship," he says. "However, on technical issues we have chosen to follow the new technologies of Europe as we create this complex."
Perhaps, but Kazakhstan's recent experiences with Russian space technology haven't been altogether successful. National space agency Kazcosmos' first telecommunications satellite, Kazsat1, was lost in space in 2008 when ground control lost contact with the $65m satellite. "Our Russian colleagues had a lot of experience manufacturing carriers such as Proton, but this was their first telecoms satellite. During the development process, we pointed out a lot of technical problems to them," Murzakulov says.
"Kazcosmos decided to attract western technologies in future. That is why we started our cooperation with EADS Astrium, which produces very reliable satellites, and I hope this decision will prove to be the right one," Murzakulov says. "I think in future our AITC will receive orders from Russia, because they would also like to have very reliable spacecraft based on European technologies."
In recent years, Kazcosmos has signed cooperation agreements with numerous countries including France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Israel, India and China. However, its relationships with the space agencies of its former Soviet colleagues - Russia and Ukraine - remain important.
The decision was made to build the space centre in Astana rather than at the Baikonur complex because Baikonur will remain under lease to Russia until 2044, and there could be legal issues to resolve before construction could begin. "In Astana there are no such issues," explains Murzakulov.
However, Kazakhstan is extremely keen to get access to the Baikonur cosmodrome. Even though Russia's space agency Roscosmos is building its own cosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Baikonur remains very important to Russia. It is used for manned space launches and cargo launches to supply the international space station on Soyuz and Proton rockets, as well as hosting the launch complex for Proton rockets, which can carry up to 20 tons of cargo. "One possibility is for Kazakhstan to work with the Russian and Ukrainian space agencies on increasing the capacity of the Zenit launch vehicle. Zenit is less harmful to the environment than Proton, but it currently cannot carry such a large volume of cargo," explains Murzakulov.
Murzakulov adds that another option is the Dneipr programme, which involves the adaption of the RS20 military missile by Kosmotras Corporation, an international company set up primarily to carry out the Russian programme for elimination of the inter-continental ballistic missiles. These missiles are being withdrawn from service and used in the Dnepr Space Launch System (SLS) for commercial orbital launches. KGS currently has a 10% stake in Kosmotras and is working to increase this to 33%.
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