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How Galileo satellites are tested before launch

July 31, 2017  - By

A Galileo satellite in the Maxwell chamber

Each Galileo satellite must go through a rigorous test campaign to assure its readiness for the violence of launch, the vacuum of space, and temperature extremes of Earth orbit, reported the European Space Agency.

Each one is despatched to a unique location in Europe to ensure its readiness before launch: a 3,000-square-meter cleanroom complex nestled in sandy dunes along the Dutch coast, filled with test equipment to simulate all aspects of spaceflight.

The test centre in Noordwijk — Europe’s largest satellite test site — is part of ESA’s main technical centre, but it is maintained and operated on a commercial basis on behalf of the Agency by a private company created for the purpose: European Test Services (ETS) B.V.

“Our company was founded 2000 as a joint venture between two of Europe’s leading satellite environmental test companies, Intespace in France and IABG in Germany,” said Pierre Destaing, ETS test programme support manager for Galileo. “That business setup is a source of flexibility: there are 30–35 people working here throughout the year, but if extra specialists are needed for a given campaign, we can call on our parent companies.”

ETS has been responsible for supporting many historic test campaigns – including space-certifying Europe’s 20-tonne ATV space truck and Envisat, the world’s largest civilian Earth-observing mission. But in terms of scale alone, its work with Galileo is the company’s greatest challenge.

ETS is about to complete its contracts with OHB System AG, covering the environmental test of 22 ‘Full Operational Capability’ Galileo satellites, preceded by the testing of the very first of the first-generation ‘In-Orbit Validation’ Galileo satellites on a previous, separate contract.

A Galileo FOC satellite is slid out of its transport container into the clean room at ESTEC. (Photo: ESA)

The pressure has been steady to ensure satellites are available in time to meet Galileo’s launch schedule.

“Traffic management is a big part of the job – it’s like a game of Tetris,” Pierre said. “We have a steady stream of Galileo satellites to accommodate, along with other missions such as the BepiColombo Mercury orbiter, Solar Orbiter, the Cheops exoplanet detector and currently the latest MetOp weather satellite, with a fixed set of test facilities. The biggest challenge is definitely ensuring that every project can have the access to the facility they need at the right time, which demands complicated logistics and security adherence.”

ETS has built up to a steady rhythm with the OHB System team, typically accommodating multiple satellites in storage on site, at the same time as others undergo further active testing.

“When each new satellite arrives, it is first unpacked within the carefully filtered and air conditioned Test Centre environment,” Pierre said.

Moving a Galileo Full Operational Capability satellite between test facilities at ESA’s Test Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. (Photo: ESA)

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