Galileo prototype GIOVE-A switched off after 16 years in orbit

November 30, 2021  - By
Artist's rendering of GIOVE-A in orbit. (Image: ESA)

Artist’s rendering of GIOVE-A in orbit. (Image: ESA)

News from the European Space Agency

Europe’s first prototype satellite for Galileo, GIOVE-A, has been formally decommissioned after 16 years of work in orbit. The GIOVE-A mission in 2005 secured Galileo’s radio frequencies for Europe, demonstrated key hardware, and probed the then-unknown radiation environment of medium-Earth orbit.

“If not for GIOVE-A, the 26 Galileo satellites in orbit today would not exist,” said Paul Verhoef, ESA’s director of navigation. “Its speedy development and launch opened the way for our working constellation to follow.”

ESA had begun designing Galileo at the turn of the century, and radio frequencies had been set aside for the new system by the International Telecommunications Union. But these frequency filings came with a deadline attached: the frequencies had to be used from orbit by mid-2006 or they would lapse.

GIOVE-A was launched by Soyuz from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Dec. 28, 2005. (Photo: ESA)

GIOVE-A was launched by Soyuz from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Dec. 28, 2005. (Photo: ESA)

GIOVE-A Sped to Orbit

Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element-A, or GIOVE-A, was produced at a breakneck pace to meet this deadline. Developed in the second half of 2003, the satellite was designed, built and tested before the end of 2005, and launched on Dec. 28 of that year.

“At the time there was a lot of uncertainty: Would we make it or not?” recalled Javier Benedicto, head of the Galileo Project Department, ESA. “GIOVE-A transmitted its first Galileo signal-in-space on Jan. 21, 2006, meaning that Europe was formally in the navigation business.”

That March, ESA formally confirmed it had brought the Galileo-related frequency filings into use, three months ahead of the official ITU deadline.

Europe's first navigation satellite GIOVE-A, short for Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element-A, during flight preparation. (Photo: ESA)

Europe’s first navigation satellite GIOVE-A, short for Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element-A, during flight preparation. (Photo: ESA)

The mission also carried a prototype rubidium atomic clock — proving its functionality for the operational Galileo satellites that would follow — as well as a radiation instrument. Medium Earth orbit, 23,000 km altitude, was terra incognita at this point for European satellites, but it was known to possess enhanced radiation levels from the impinging of the outer band of Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts.

A second Galileo prototype, GIOVE-B, followed in 2008, this time hosting a prototype passive hydrogen maser — the second type of atomic clock that Galileo relies on — along with an enhanced payload able to transmit for the first time the GPS-Galileo common signal.

GIOVE-A Succeeded at New Mission

Once the first Galileo satellites were in orbit and working well, ESA ended use of GIOVE-A in 2012. The satellite was placed in a graveyard orbit 100 km above the operational satellites’ orbits, as was GIOVE-B after its own four-year mission.

Control of GIOVE-A passed to manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) in the United Kingdom. GIOVE-A was then employed for various in-orbit experiments, including demonstrating the reception of satellite navigation signals from GPS satellites orbiting below it — based on spillover sidelobe reception from satellites on the other side of Earth.

GPS satellites — like those of Galileo, Russia’s GLONASS or their Japanese, Chinese and Indian counterparts — aim their antennas directly at Earth. Any satellite orbiting above the GPS constellation can only hope to detect signals from over Earth’s far side, but the majority are blocked by the planet. For a position fix, a satnav receiver requires a minimum of four satellites to be visible, but this is most of the time not possible if based solely on front-facing signals. Instead, GIOVE-A has been able to make use of signals emitted sideways from GPS antennas, within what is known as "side lobes." Just like a flashlight, radio antennas shine energy to the side as well as directly forward. (Image: ESA)

GIOVE-A was able to make use of signals emitted sideways from GPS antennas, within what is known as “side lobes.” (Image: ESA)

This proof that satnav can be relied on further out into space means that satellites in geostationary orbit are making use of satnav for positioning. As a next step, ESA is planning to extend satnav coverage all the way to the Moon.

The satellite also continued its radiation survey of medium-Earth orbit, acquiring a unique record extending across more than 10 years, analyzed by the Surrey Space Centre with ESA support. Multiple scientific papers have been written on these results, which encompass the “electron desert” of 2008-9 during the lowest levels of solar activity of the space era, followed by one of the largest electron storm events on record in April 2010.

A new model of the outer Van Allen belt electron fluxes, MOBE-DIC, has been produced from this dataset, helping to guide future satellite designs.

“Actually, the satellite itself is still operating well,” said Sarah Lawrence, SSTL. “The reason for ending the mission is software obsolescence in our control center. The decommissioning procedure involved transitioning the satellite to Earth-pointing mode, turning off the reaction wheels and setting the attitude and orbit control system to standby mode, before finally switching off the on-board computer and transmitter.”

“GIOVE-A over-delivered on its original lifetime and mission goals – an inspiring and game-changing mission on so many levels,” said Martin Sweeting, SSTL executive chairman.

SSTL went on to provide navigation payloads for operational Galileo satellites. Today, 26 Galileo satellites orbit the Earth. Galileo has become the world’s most precise satnav system, delivering meter-scale accuracy to more than 2.3 billion users around the globe.

Two more Galileo satellites are being readied for launch Dec. 2.

About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.