Paris: Europe`s space base in Kourou, French Guiana, is now ready for its first launch of the Soyuz rocket, the Soviet-Russian workhorse, the European Space Agency (ESA) said on Friday.
ESA formally handed over the launch pad on Thursday to Arianespace, which markets satellite launches from Kourou, it said.
The first launch should take place "in the third quarter" of 2011 if a dress rehearsal and other tests go well, it said in a press release.
Russia agreed to Soyuz launches from Kourou under a 2003 accord providing Arianespace with a medium-sized rocket in its range of services.
ESA`s heavy launcher, the Ariane 5, can place up to 9.5 tonnes in low Earth orbit. A new small rocket, the Vega, with a launch capacity 1.5 tonnes, is also due for its maiden flight this year.
The Soyuz traces its origins back to the early days of space exploration, from launchers used for Sputnik in 1957 and for Yuri Gagarin`s first manned flight on April 12, 1961.
It is by far the most used and reliable rocket in space history, with more than 1,700 launches to its credit. Up to now, it has only ever been launched from Russia`s bases at Baikonur in Kazakhstan and Plesetsk, Russia.
The vehicle that will be used at Europe?s Spaceport is the Soyuz-2 version called Soyuz-ST.
It will be able to hoist nearly three tonnes into geostationary transfer orbit, given the extra push that comes from launches close to the equator, compared to 1.7 tonnes from Baikonur.
Using a manned capsule also called Soyuz, the launcher will be the only form of human transport to and from the International Space Station (ISS) when the US space shuttle is phased out in the coming months.
"The launch infrastructure (at Kourou) has been designed so that it can be smoothly adapted for human spaceflight, should this be decided," ESA said on its website.