Galileo clock anomalies under investigation

January 19, 2017  - By

The European Space Agency (ESA) issued a press release addressing the Galileo clock failures reported Jan. 18. GPS World Innovation editor Richard Langley provided the following summary of the satellites and clocks involved, based on information we have received to date.

  • 5 satellites affected: 3 IOVs, 2 FOCs
  • Total of 10 failures; 1 fixed; so 9 continuing failures
  • 5 masers on IOV satellites
  • 2 masers on FOC satellites but 1 of these fixed
  • 3 rubidiums on FOC satellites
  • No satellite currently has fewer than 2 working clocks

The ESA press release provides additional details on the failures and actions being taken to address the problem.

Press Release from the European Space Agency

As first reported November 2016, anomalies have been noted in the atomic clocks serving Europe’s Galileo satellites.

Anomalies have occurred on five out of 18 Galileo satellites in orbit, although all satellites continue to operate well and the provision of Galileo Initial Services has not been affected.

Highly accurate timing is core to satellite navigation. Each Galileo carries four atomic clocks to ensure strong, quadruple redundancy of the timing subsystem: two Rubidium Atomic Frequency Standard (RAFS) clocks and two Passive Hydrogen Maser (PHM) clocks.

The current Galileo constellation consists of 18 satellites in orbit, adding up to a total of 36 RAFS clocks and 36 PHM clocks.

Rubidium atomic clock, or RAF.

Rubidium atomic clock, or RAF.

RAFS clocks

In recent months, a total of three RAFS clocks unexpectedly failed on Galileo satellites — all on Full Operational Capability (FOC) satellites, the latest Galileo model. These failures all seem to have a consistent signature, linked to probable short circuits, and possibly a particular test procedure performed on the ground, with investigations continuing to identify a root cause.

No RAFS clock failures have occurred aboard the four Galileo In Orbit Validation (IOV) satellites, the original Galileo model. In addition the RAFS clock on ESA’s very first test navigation satellite, GIOVE-A launched in 2005, has been checked, and was reactivated successfully.

Continuing investigations on the ground have identified potential weaknesses in the RAFS clock design, but no root cause has yet been yet established.

PHM Clocks

Passive hydrogen maser atomic clock of the type flown on Galileo, accurate to one second in three million years. (Photo: ESA)

Passive hydrogen maser atomic clock of the type flown on Galileo, accurate to one second in three million years. (Photo: ESA)

In the past two years, there have been five PHM clock failures on the IOV satellites and one PHM failure on the FOC satellites.

These failures are better understood, linked to two apparent causes. One is a low margin on a particular parameter that leads, on some units, to a failure. The second is related to the fact that when some healthy PHM clocks are turned off for long periods, they do not restart because of a change in clock characteristics in orbit. To date, two PHM clocks have failed owing to the first mechanism, and four to the second.

Corrective Actions

For the remaining 33 RAFS clocks in orbit, the risk of failure is believed to be lower owing to different testing procedures on the ground before launch. In addition, new operational measures have been put in place to further mitigate the risk. All these measures have no effect on Galileo’s overall performance.

While investigations by ESA and its industrial partners are continuing, there is consensus that some refurbishment is required on the remaining RAFS clocks still to be launched on the eight Galileo satellites being constructed or tested, and awaiting launch.

For the remaining 30 PHM clocks working in orbit, operational procedures are being studied to significantly reduce the risk of future failure. These measures are being validated, ahead of their planned introduction in a few weeks.

Looking Forward

Overall, three out of four IOV satellites have experienced clock anomalies, and two out of 14 FOC satellites.

As ESA Director General Jan Woerner commented during his Jan. 18 press briefing, no individual Galileo satellite has experienced more than two clock failures, so the robust quadruple redundancy designed into the system means all 18 members of the constellation remain operational. This includes one satellite that supports only the Open Service for mass-market applications, and two satellites in elliptical orbits that are nevertheless expected to be reintegrated into the full constellation for use from these orbits.

Similarly, Galileo’s Initial Services, which began on Dec. 16, have been unaffected by these anomalies.

The impact of RAFS and PHM clock refurbishment on Galileo’s launch schedule is under study, but ESA is confident that the clock issues will be resolved and remains committed to launch the next four Galileo FOC satellites before the end of this year.

Director General Press Briefing

January 18, 2017

Clock problems are discussed at about the 12-minute mark, and in the Q&A portion started at the 52-minute mark.

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