In early July a Russian Soyuz satellite launcher lifted off from Kourou, a very active launching facility in French Guiana (South America). This launch put four more O3b communications satellites in orbit, to complete a network of eight which provide high-speed Internet service to remote parts of the world that have few other options.
What are Russian rockets doing operating from a French facility located in a French colony in South America? It’s all about economy and location. The Soyuz has been around since 1966 and has been launched over 1,900 times and has been successful 92 percent of the time. Not only that the Soyuz is cheaper than any of the alternatives. Launching from near the equator is also more effective for most orbits (can put more weight in orbit than the same launcher operating at higher latitudes), which is why the French built their launch facility there in the 1960s and eventually came to share it with the European Space Agency (ESA) which, after finding itself short of launchers turned to the Russian Space Agency and purchased Soyuz launchers to fill that need.
Despite having been around since the 1960s, the Soyuz is still being tweaked and upgraded. Thus on December 28, 2013 Russia successfully launched a new version of its Soyuz rocket and put a scientific satellite into orbit at the same time. This version (Soyuz 2.1v) uses a new engine and digital guidance system. This launch was delayed several times by one problem or another. Soyuz is a popular launcher for putting satellites into orbit and has survived and thrived because of constant upgrades like this.
The Russian commercial satellite launching company ILS (International Launch Services) uses R-7 (Soyuz) and Proton rockets for launching satellites. The 175 ton Soyuz is the most frequently used rocket. The Soyuz is a much smaller than the Proton and can only put 6.4 tons into low orbit. The most notable Soyuz use is to supply the international space station (ISS). The Soyuz/Progress space vehicle weighs about seven tons and can deliver 2.7 tons of cargo and also serve as a rescue craft to get people back to earth. The Soyuz spacecraft consists of three parts and the middle one is the reentry vehicle for three people.
In 2008 the European Union (EU) agreed to buy ten Russian Soyuz satellite launchers, for about $35 million each. These were to be launched from Kourou. The ESA spent some $400 million to build a launch pad for the Soyuz. This expansion was caused by the ESA facility having more work than it could handle. The Russian Soyuz, while old, is reliable and cheaper (by about 25 percent) than any of the Western launch vehicles ESA has used. There are 3-4 Soyuz launches a year from Kourou. France built this launch facility in the late 1960s, and began sharing it with the ESA. Since then, there have been over 200 launches from this site.
Proton rockets are for putting heavy satellites into high orbits. So far Proton has launched 390 times and is about 88 percent reliable. The Proton entered service in the 1960s and in the last two decades Protons have earned Russia over $6 billion putting foreign satellites into orbit, especially high orbits. While the Proton isn’t perfect, it is competitive when it comes to price and reliability.