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SOYUZ at Guiana Space Center  

In this section I would like to write a couple of words about the philatelic story around Soyuz launch vehicle career at French Guiana Space Center. The subject of course is not as exiting and popular as manned space flights or interplanetary exploration, but there are some covers around that present this piece of history. With all the political turmoil there is a good chance that Soyuz experience with ESA will end soon.


The story of the usage of Soviet/Russian rocket launch vehicles outside the former Soviet Union started in 1993, when Russian Federation and United States experts have begun consultations on the mobile maritime launch platform "Sea Launch" using Zenit rockets, designed and produced in Ukraine. The first successful space launch from a maritime platform took place in 1998 - when Tubsat satellites were launched on Shtil (RSM-54) ballistic missile from the Russian submarine K-407 Novomoskovsk.

First demonstration launch from the "Sea Launch" was conducted in 1999. All in all there were 36 launches and in summer 2014 all the activities of the “Sea Launch” were frozen. The reasons lay on the field of confrontation between Russia and Ukraine.

In 1998 a joint Russian-French group started to work on construction of the launch site for using Soyuz in French Guiana (GSC). In 2003 an agreement was signed between Russia and France followed by a contract on April 11, 2005, between Arianespace and Roscosmos to supply Russian equipment. The first launch of Soyuz-ST occurred in 2011.

Speaking re available Soyuz-GSC material – there are mainly covers from the dealers and clubs, numbered 300-500-700 pieces. I would not say these covers are widely available, but I have not seen much demand – some were out for months.  According to my observations the Soyuz-GSC oriented philatelic inventory largely decreased towards the later launches leaving barely a couple of variations after VS11, but hopefully there will be more.I will try to give some info on the dealers and  Soyuz launches. For later I mainly use ©.

So I will show, what I have…

Philatelic story begins in 2003 with two covers commemorating GSC Soyuz program approval by ESA on May 27 from Michel Vasse and agreement signature on Nov 07 by Lollini. Lollini is known for its art covers, catalogs, strange prices and participation in the production and sales of philatelic stuff of exotic countries. Lollini will be following all Soyuz launches, mainly offering covers from the partners and only limited number of their own issues.

Michel Vasse, settled in French Guiana in 1977 and took an active part in the work of Kourou philatelic club, especially in the design of stamps. In 1979 Vasse with his friend began to create art covers in honor of Ariane launches. Since then Vasse opened a hobby shop, where he was offering his designs and provided services to dealers and anyone wishing to get GSC cancellations. His covers are far from artistic sophistication or print quality, but he was the only dealer in the vicinity of GSC (as philatelic club has gone long before). On the back of his covers there is a description of the relevant projects. In our story, he is unique to provide covers for Galliot tracking station. Not long ago Vasse moved to mainland France and it is not clear whether is continue to work with GSC. Vasse issued a batch of covers dedicated to Soyuz Launch Complex (Ensemble de Lancement Soyouz) construction.

The next step was taken in a formal stream - in June 2010, La Poste (French Post Service) has issued a stamp to honor "Soyuz-GSC" program in more than 2 million copies. The private "first day" covers appeared as well with special cancellation, dated 12.06.2010 which shows the image of Soyuz together with toucan bird (somewhere on the forums, it was nicknamed - "Soyuz-toucan" I liked it and I will continue to use this name on with respect to the postmark and stamp).

VS01 - the first Soyuz with two navigation satellites Galileo IOV was launched on October 21, 2011. The first Soyuz Mission ever Launched from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, was a complete success. The mission was designated VS01 for the first Soyuz Launch from Guiana.

Family company Historiaphil released two covers in different formats. One of the covers got new Soyuz-toucan stamp, the other - a special private edition dedicated to the fiftieth anniversary of Gagarin's flight. The company is based in Strasbourg and focuses on the theme of "Free Europe". The head of the company was a member of French Resistance, and after the war he earned his living presenting philately collections for sale. Later his main theme started to be the coverage of the European organizations activity in philately and for a long time he was the only stamp dealer with the access to European Parliament. Over the time, the company became an official postal representative of the European Parliament, so all its covers bear special postmark. Historiaphil produces both art covers and private stamps.

Commemorative covers appeared from a Snecma club - Astro-Phil, CNES philatelic club and Arianespace. Lollini issued covers for the tracking facilities, EADS club issued special vignettes that were used on the other club covers.

VS02 – the second Soyuz launch on Dec 16, 2011 with bunch of satellites – PLEIADES, ELISA and SSOT. PLEIADES is a high resolution imaging satellite that will provide imagery with a resolution of 50 to 70 centimeters. The spacecraft will operate in a 695-km, sun-synchronous orbit around Earth. ELISA is a  Demonstrator Satellite and part of a program between the French Defense Procurement Agency DGA and the Space Agency CNES. ELISA will record and analyze Radar Transmitters on Earth evaluating characteristics of Radar Emissions around the Planet. SSOT is a Chilian military observation satellite for transmitting high resolution images.

Note, some cachets were printed on the cards and covers cancelled with Soyuz-toucan special postmark almost a year and a half before the VS02. Probably many cards got this cancellation were used to provide club members with nice souvenirs.

VS03 – third Soyuz launch on Oct 12, 2012 with two navigation satellites Galileo IOV. Galileo will provide Open-Access Navigation for the mass market featuring simple timing and positioning with an accuracy of 1 meter. Commercial Navigation will be encrypted and provide high accuracy positioning to the centimeter.  A Search And Rescue Feature will be used to pick up Beacon Signals and Locations from aircraft or sea vessels in distress, send feedback and confirm that help is on the way.

VS04 – fourth launch on Dec 1, 2012 with the surveillance satellite Pleiades 1B, designed for the transmission of high-resolution images of any spot on Earth within 24 hour timeslot. Images provided by Pleiades are used for a number of applications that include civilian and commercial purposes as well as military applications. Imagery is used for land planning, land management, the identification of small features such as vehicles, buildings and roads, hydrology, forestry, Maritime and littoral surveillance, civil engineering and planning of road, rail and oil pipeline corridors. In addition, images can be used to produce flight simulators, to generate high-precision maps and for scientific purposes. Military applications of Pleiades images include intelligence and tactical planning, homeland security purposes as well as crisis management and post-crisis assessments. 

VS05 – On June 25, 2013 Soyuz 2-1B launch vehicle carried four O3b communication satellites designed by O3b Networks. The O3b satellite constellation is planned to consist of eight satellites in its initial phase before the number of active spacecraft is doubled to 16. The fleet of satellites will orbit in a circular, equatorial Medium Earth Orbit at an altitude of 8,062 Kilometers. O3b will provide fiber-like trunking capacity to telecom operators and backhaul directly to 3G Cellular and WiMAX towers.

VS06 – On December 19, 2013 Soyuz-Fregat launch vehicle delivered on orbit ESA spacecraft Gaia. Gaia is a space observatory operated by the European Space Agency that sets out to create a 3D space catalog of 1 billion stars – determining star positions, distances and star motion at an unprecedented accuracy. Also, the spacecraft continues the search for extra-solar planetary systems, asteroids and distant quasars. In addition, Gaia takes a look at fundamental physics, testing Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

VS07 – On April 3, 2014 Soyuz 2-1A rocket operated by Arianespace has successfully delivered the Sentinel-1A satellite to orbit for the European Commission’s Copernicus Program. Sentinel-1A is the first of two Sentinel-1 satellites that will use a C-band interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar to observe the sea ice zones, the arctic environment, the marine environment, land surface motion risks and to support mapping in support of crisis situations.

VS08 – On July 10, 2014 Soyuz 2-1B rocket delivered the second batch of O3b Communications Satellites to Medium Earth Orbit on Thursday in the continued deployment of the new satellite constellation that will bring data and internet services to remote and emerging locations at fiber-optic speeds. O3b Networks Ltd. is the operator of this new satellite constellation, named after “the Other 3 Billion” – referring to the population of the world that had no access to broadband data services without help.

VS09 – After a series of successful launches comes a failure - the two Galileo-FOC (Full Operational Capacity) navigation satellites launched on August 22, 2014 by a Soyuz lifting off from French Guiana ended up in an erroneous orbit. At first the launch was declared a success by Arianespace and ESA that assumed control of the satellites.  Several hours passed until the first signs of an erroneous orbital insertion arrived in the form of orbital tracking data gathered by U.S. Space Surveillance. The new orbits differ by some 1500km in apogee and 10,000km in perigee from the planned circular 23,522km. The investigation revealed malfunction in Soyuz upper stage performance but this was immediately declined by Roscosmos. After a series of blames and dozens of orbit corrections both satellites settled down at their planned orbits - first by end of 2014 and second in the beginning of 2015.

VS10 – on December 18, 2014 Soyuz 2-1B rocket successfully delivered the next batch of four O3b communications satellites to a Medium Earth Orbit. The mission was not without excitement and tense moments as the Fregat Upper Stage appeared to go silent prior to its final critical burn with no real-time data of mission progress available to teams on the ground. Mission Controllers had to rely on signals from the satellites themselves that were sent after separation to confirm the success of the launch.

VS11 – on March 27, 2015 after ill-fated VS09 launch, Soyuz 2-1B rocket successfully delivered the next batch of Galileo FOC navigation satellites to a planned orbit of more than 23,000km. The operational Galileo Satellite constellation will be very similar to the American GPS, the Russian Glonass and the Chinese Beidou navigation systems - all operating by having spacecraft in different orbital planes in Medium Earth Orbit so that any given observer on Earth sees at least three satellites. Unlike GPS and Glonass, Galileo will offer its highest possible accuracy to civilian customers.

VS12 – launched on September 11, 2015 Soyuz 2-1B successfully delivered FM-5 and FM-6 Galileo satellites, nicknamed Alba & Oriana, to the medium orbit over 23,500 kilometers.

VS13 - December 17, making its third launch from South America in 2015, a Soyuz carrier rocket with Fregat MT upper stage successfully lifted a duo of Galileo navigation satellites (FM-8 & 9) into Medium Earth Orbit. It was the third Galileo launch of the year in the continued deployment of Europe's navigation satellite system.

VS14 – Soyuz rocket topped by a Fregat Upper Stage lifted off from French Guiana on April 25, 2016 on a long mission to deliver Europe’s Sentinel-1B environmental monitoring satellite, the French MicroSCOPE fundamental physics experiment satellite, and three small CubeSats from European universities into custom orbits – creating a complex mission of over four hours.

VS15 - A Soyuz 2-1B rocket raced into the early morning skies over French Guiana on May 24, 2016 carrying a pair of Galileo satellites named Daniele and Alizee (FM-10 & 11) into orbit in the continuing deployment of Europe’s Galileo Satellite Navigation System that is set to begin initial services by the end of the year.

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