Fuel leak postpones proposed launch of Galileo satellites

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The launch of Europe’s first global navigation satellites has been postponed for at least 24 hours due to a fuel leak.

Two Galileo satellites, which will form part of Europe’s version of GPS, were due to launch on a Russian rocket from French Guiana this morning but the mission was delayed after a fuel line became disconnected.

‘This led to the automatic cancelling of the launch sequence and they couldn’t restart it in time for the launch window,’ UK Space Agency chief executive Dr David Williams said at a launch event in London.

This may mean the entire launch process has to start again from scratch if the ground team is not able to prepare the Soyuz rocket in time to meet the launch window tomorrow, he added.

The first two satellites, which were developed by European space firm Astrium in the UK and other locations, will be followed by another pair next year to validate the system and then additional craft that will make Galileo services ready for use by mid-decade.

Once fully operational, Galileo will provide a more accurate global navigation satellite system (GNSS) than is currently available through GPS — with errors of up to around 1m instead of 10m — thanks to its more precise atomic clocks.

Two GNSSs will allow users to rely more heavily on satellite navigation as GPS is still available as a back-up should Galileo go down, or vice versa. In addition, Galileo will transmit an operational signal to warn users within a few seconds if it has a problem.

The system will allow European businesses to develop new applications for satellite navigation that will stimulate economic growth, said Chris Payne, technical manager for the satellite control system for the European Space Agency (ESA).

‘One possible application is monitoring transport and freight,’ he told The Engineer. ‘Because the accuracy is so high it can track the movement of freight vehicles within a yard.’

Richard Peckham, business development director at Astrium, said: ‘The biggest explosion will be in mobile phone services. There will also be a paid-for commercial service for people who need higher accuracy such as farmers spreading fertiliser and seeds using automated tractors.’

A team at Astrium in the UK was responsible for integrating the satellite’s systems including the passive hydrogen maser atomic clock, which has not been used for time-keeping in space before.

This meant miniaturising systems to fit lots of functionality into a small space and then preventing interference between these electronic systems, said Colin Matthew, Astrium’s head of navigation payload products.

‘The clock was developed from ground-based technology that we had to make spaceworthy. It needs to be kept in a perfect vacuum so we need to keep the seal perfect during the launch.’

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