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The ELA-3 launch facility for the Ariane-5 rocket in Korou

During the 1990s, the European Space Agency, ESA, funded the most extensive construction to date in Kourou. With a price tag of 800 million ECU, the ELA-3 launch complex was intended specifically for the Ariane-5 rocket. The heavy-lifting vehicle was meant to eventually replace all previous-generation Ariane rockets.


The ELA-3 launch complex

Spread over 15 square kilometers (three by five kilometers), the ELA-3 complex was located immediately east of its predecessor -- the ELA-2 facility -- and some 25 kilometers northwest of Kourou. The launch complex could fire between eight and 10 Ariane-5 rockets per year at one-month minimum intervals. After an initial trial and error period, the launch teams were expected to conduct routine launch campaigns lasting around 22 work days.

Unlike the old Ariane launch facilities, the ELA-3 launch pad would have no movable service tower. The rocket would be delivered to the pad in vertical position on a movable platform, along with an umbilical mast. Normally, this would be done two days before launch, but theoretically could be performed as late as a few hours before launch. The developers believed that such a design would enable the launch complex to accommodate the maximum number of missions and also minimize damage to the infrastructure in case the mighty rocket exploded right on its launch pad.

ELA-3 consists of two zones:

THE LAUNCHER PREPARATION ZONE, which in its turn consists of the following main elements:

The launch control center

Located in a 2,700-square-meter protected enclosure, which is designed to withstand the impact of falling launcher elements. It features two independent launcher checkout rooms.

The launcher integration building

A 58-meter-high building with an 80,000 cubical meters air-conditioned interior, where solid-propellant boosters, main, upper stages and vehicle equipment bay of the Ariane-5 rocket are all assembled on a mobile launch table. Assembly, electrical and tightness checks are performed here in a 13-day cycle, before roll-out to the final assembly building.

The final assembly building

A 90-meter high building with a 123,000 cubic meters of air-conditioned interior where payloads are mated with their flight adapters, encapsulated inside the fairing and hoisted onto the launcher. Assembly of the launcher's upper section, associated electrical checks and filling of the upper-stage with propellants is also carried out here in a eight-day cycle before the launcher is finally rolled out to the launch zone some hours prior to lift-off.

ATV rollout

The Ariane-5 rocket with the ATV spacecraft is being prepared for the rollout from the final assembly building to the launch pad at the ELA-3 launch complex in Kourou, French Guiana, on March 7, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


Final countdown and lift-off of the Ariane-5 takes place in the launch zone which includes:

  • A solid base interfacing with the launch table, and including the cryogenic propellant (liquid oxygen/hydrogen) feed lines and launcher checkout umbilical connections. It also has a wind dampening shield and four lightning-conductor towers;
  • Three separate flame trenches (one for the Vulcan engine and one for each booster);
  • A 90-meter-high water tower with a storage capacity of 1,500 cubic meters for table cooling and noise dampening at lift-off;
  • Connection facilities for the mobile cryogenic storage tanks;
  • A 310-square-meter gaseous hydrogen burn-off pool;

The launcher preparation zone and the launch pad are connected by a four-kilometer dual rail line. The rocket is transferred to the launch pad on a mobile launch table equipped with a 58-meter-tall umbilical mast. A second table was to be delivered in 1998. Each launch table weighs 870 tons unfueled. It supports the launcher during the entire preparation campaign.

Combined, the launch table and the rocket reach the mass of 1,500 tons. They are towed by truck from the final assembly building to the launch zone. During the transfer, power, ventilation and air-conditioning are provided by a special servicing unit, while a damper is used to absorb the energy generated by the action of the wind on the launcher.

Ariane support area

Along with the ELA-3 launch complex itself, a number of other Ariane-5-dedicated production and test facilities was built at the Guiana Space Center. As with the main launch complex, ESA eventually transferred this infrastructure to industrial operators:

  • The Guiana propellant plant, for mixing and casting the large solid-propellant booster segments. This facility was handed over to Regulus, a joint subsidiary of Fiat Avio (Italy) and SNPE (France) in 1990.
  • The booster integration building, handed over to Europropulsion, a joint subsidiary of SEP (France) and Fiat Avio in 1992.
  • The booster preparation building, handed over to Aerospatiale (France) in 1996.
  • The booster test stand, which was used for seven development and qualification tests between 1993 and 1995 and is used for quality-control test firings of production units.
  • The liquid hydrogen plant, built and operated by Air Liquide (France).

Construction of the complex

Given the rich heritage of rocket development in France, ESA delegated all development work on launch facilities and the rocket itself to the French space agency, CNES.

The construction of the ELA-3 facility started in 1988. The project involved 60 European companies and required some two million man-hours for all the work in the fields of engineering design, construction and testing of infrastructure, power-supply , air-conditioning systems, mechanical structures, specialized tooling, ground-to-launcher connections, cryogenic and conventional fluids, computerized checkout systems, inspection and so on.

Once the Ariane-5 "learned to fly," by the end of the 1990s, responsibility for ELA-3 operations, including launcher integration and launch operations, final payload preparation, management and maintenance of facilities, insurance, safety and quality control were gradually transferred from ESA to Arianespace. However, even after Arianespace had completely taken over the operations, it employed mostly same contractors from countries-members of ESA. Total 12 firms from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Spain assigned around 250 people to support the program.

In the meantime, CNES remained in Kourou, providing coordination for overall operations at the launch site, ensuring ground and inflight safety, and manning tracking and telemetry stations, and meteorological and telecommunications facilities. The agency also provided operations and maintenance for payload processing and logistical facilities.

Between 1994 and 1996, ESA started using the completed facilities of the ELA-3 complex for a series of main stage firing tests. The first two Ariane-5 test launches, known as Flight 501 and 502 found few problems with the ELA-3 ground infrastructure, even though the same could not be said about the rocket. The first launch of Ariane-5 in 1996 ended in the explosion and crash of the rocket on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean within Guiana Space Center.

On 25 November 1997, Fredrick Engström, ESA Director of Launchers, Michel Courtois, Deputy Director-General of CNES and Jean-Marie Luton, Chairman of Arianespace, signed the document formally handing over the ELA-3 complex from ESA to Arianespace. (280)

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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: November 29, 2017

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: May 23, 2008

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ATV video

A spectacular video of the ATV-1 launch captured from the Toucan viewing site on March 9, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak

ELA-3 pad

The Ariane-5 rocket on the launch pad in Kourou. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


The final assembly building, BAF with its main doors closed. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


Ariane-5 rollout

The Ariane-5 rocket leaves the final assembly building (Batiment d'Assemblage Final, BAF) on its way to the launch pad. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


Even the grandest structures of the space era are dwarfed by the vastness of the South-American jungle. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


The apotheosis of technological perfection in the midst of primordial jungle. The BIL integration building is in the foreground, the BAF final assembly building is in the background. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


The launcher integration building is known by its French abbreviation as BIL for Batiment d'Intégration Lanceur. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


The BIL building dominates the ELA-3 launch complex. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


The flags of the member-countries of the European Space Agency, ESA, adorn the entrance of the launch center CDL-3 (Centre De Lancement No. 3), which fires the Ariane-5 rocket. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak

CDL control room

The interior of the launch control center inside the CDL-3 building. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak

CDL control room

Click to enlarge Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak

CDL control room

Click to enlarge Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


A truck convoy participating in the towing of the launch platform from the final assembly building to the launch pad is preparing to pull out from the CDL building. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


A state-of-the-art security fence encircles the ELA-3 facility. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak