We visited Kourou briefly on our way to Cayenne, but decided it deserved a bit more exploration on our return trip. It's only about 60 km (36 miles) from Cayenne and lies at the mouth of the Kourou River. Some of our cruiser friends anchored in the river, but admit that Saint-Laurent is a bit easier and more convenient. Driving to Kourou was definitely easier than anchoring in the river and walking.
Kourou, too, was originally part of the French penal colony. There's not much left of the prison, mostly ruins. The Dreyfuss Tower remains, a solemn, but dilapidated reminder of years past when semaphore communication was used to communicate with the offshore prison islands. Iles du Salut (Devil's Island) is only 14 km (8 miles) away.
Kourou isn't known for its prisons, though. It's known nowadays for the Centre Spatial Guayanais, the Guiana Space Center. It's the launch facility for the European Space Agency (ESA), comprised of 10 cooperating European countries. It's also the home of Arianespace SA, a European multinational company founded in 1980 as the world's first commercial launch service provider It's a very active site with a schedule of six launches in 2015. The last was 30 September and the next will be 10 November. If we were staying around, we'd likely attend. They offer a free bus from Saint-Laurent to Kourou to view the launches. It would be great, but as always, there are compromises for sailors. If we delay our departure from French Guiana, we miss visiting Suriname and/or Guyana.
Free tours are available, but pre-planning is required. We signed up for one, but found it was a three-hour tour and only given in French. Three hours of understanding 50% or less of what was going on added to the broken toe situation didn't make sense. We opted instead to drive around the facility and see what we could see.
CSG (Centre Spatial Guayanais or the Guiana Space Centre) has been in existence since 1968. According to Wiki and the Space Center site, “it is particularly suitable as a location for a spaceport as it fulfills the two major geographical requirements of such a site:
- it is quite close to the equator, so that the spinning earth can impart some extra velocity to the rockets for free when launched eastward, and
- it has uninhabited territory (in this case, open sea) to the east, so that lower stages of rockets and debris from launch failures cannot fall on human habitations.”
“Kourou is located approximately 500 kilometres (310 mi) north of the equator, at a latitude of 5°10'. The near-equatorial launch location provides an advantage for launches to low-inclination (or geostationary) Earth orbits compared to launches from space ports at higher latitude. For example, the eastward boost provided by the Earth's rotation is about 463 m/s (1,035 miles per hour) at the Guiana Space Centre versus about 406 m/s (908 miles per hour) at Cape Canaveral/Kennedy Space Center space ports in Florida which are at 28°27′N latitude.The proximity to the equator also makes maneuvering satellites for geosynchronous orbits simpler and less costly.”
There was plenty to see from the car actually. There's an impressive Ariane rocket replica on display next to the CSG headquarters.
We were surprised at how far we could drive without being stopped. Beyond the CSG headquarters building, we took a perimeter road and drove for several kilometers. We passed the Satellite Prep site and the Meteorological station.
A turn-off and parking area invited us to take a closer look at a recovered booster rocket engine.
When we approached the actual launch site area, however, we weren't surprised when we were very politely denied access. All in all though, a pretty impressive site and no French translation was involved.