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Squeeze at the Launchpad for Galileo

March 31, 2014  - By
Image: GPS World

With the first two full-operational-capability (FOC) Galileo satellites successfully through their thermal-vacuum tests, the program’s next hurdle is securing a firm launch date in June aboard a Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket, operated from Europe’s spaceport on the northeast coast of South America.

It will not be a walk in the park. Competing with the two Galileo FOC satellites for the same June Soyuz launch are four commercial broadband communications spacecraft owned by O3b Networks of Britain’s Channel Islands, a start-up that promises, if all goes well, to launch as many as 100 satellites.

O3b and Galileo managers as of late March were rushing to complete final tests to be able to be first to ship their craft to the spaceport and thereby lay claim to priority rights aboard the June Soyuz. Both say they can be on a plane to the Guiana Space Center launch base in April. Should they arrive within days of each other, the already nightmarish dilemma confronting the Arianespace commercial launch consortium will only grow more complicated.

Here’s the matchup.

Powerful Backer. O3b, in addition to its plans to launch dozens of satellites if the business model proves out, is backed by SES of Luxembourg, the world’s second-largest satellite fleet operator and as such a big Arianespace customer.

SES has already shown itself disinclined to maintain its loyalty to the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket operated by Arianespace by booking three less-expensive launches, one already completed, aboard the new Falcon 9 rocket operated by SpaceX of the United States. Arianespace can ill-afford to alienate SES, whose 50-satellite fleet requires 3-4 launches per year just to maintain its existing capacity.

The four first O3b satellites in orbit all have a defect that could cause one or more of them to stop functioning at any time. Without at least four satellites — and preferably six — O3b does not have a business and its future is put into question.

It would be, to say the least, a public relations calamity for the company if its initial commercial operations, which began in March, were to be suspended in the wake of a satellite failure while waiting for a second batch of four spacecraft. This explains the extraordinary pressure that SES is placing on Arianespace on behalf of a June Soyuz launch for O3b.

Does it really matter, O3b backers say, if Galileo waits until the next Soyuz launch slot, tentatively set for August?

Emphatic Politician. It matters to the European Commission, which owns Galileo. Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani has all but pounded the table, insisting that the European Space Agency, hired to oversee Galileo’s technical development, ensure three Galileo launches on Soyuz rockets in 2014.

Four initial-operating-capability Galileo satellites are in orbit. Indications are that their performance exceeds specifications. Three Soyuz launches carrying two satellites at a time would bring the constellation to 10 spacecraft, enough to offer initial commercial services, according to the Commission.

Tajani has made clear how much he wants that feather in his cap as he prepares to leave the EC this year, probably headed for a political career in Italy. Make no mistake: as is the case with many wounded animals, Tajani’s status as a lame duck has made him all the more fierce in his insistence that Galileo meet its three-launch schedule in 2014.

Tajani has put very public pressure on the European Space Agency, which in turn is pressuring Arianespace, for Galileo launches.

Ariane’s Quandary. Arianespace is already facing an exceptionally crowded launch manifest in 2014 as it coordinates the schedules of three vehicles: the small Vega rocket in addition to the medium-lift Soyuz and the heavy-lift Ariane 5. Because both O3b and Galileo are late, neither has an obvious claim of priority status at Arianespace, which is clearly hoping that the problem will solve itself when either O3b or Galileo arrives at least several weeks ahead of the other.

At press time, the next Soyuz launch was scheduled for April 3, carrying a European Commission environment-monitoring satellite. Commission officials will attend the launch and no doubt use the occasion to press their case for Galileo.

There is no telling how this will turn out. Satellites have been known to face last-minute problems even after arrival at the spaceport. This happened to O3b in 2013, as the in-orbit defect did not surface until just before its scheduled Soyuz launch.

But if one were to hazard a guess, here is the most likely scenario: O3b arrives ready for launch several weeks ahead of Galileo and secures the June launch. Galileo moves to August and is promised a second launch in the autumn. O3b’s planned second launch in 2014 is moved to early 2015, as is the planned third launch of Galileo.

The effect of these schedule slips on the cost of the Galileo program, which is about a year late — cost overruns that Tajani has vowed will not be paid by the Commission — is a subject for another day.

About the Author: Peter de Selding

Peter B. de Selding is the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews. He is responsible for coverage of all European military, civil and commercial space programs for Space News and and also covers international regulatory organizations such as the International Telecommunications Union. He earned a B.A. in political science at Washington College and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism and studied German at the German Language Institute in Berlin.