Initial Operational Galileo Launch Pushed Well Into 2014

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BEIJING — Further delays in ground testing of two satellites that will become the first fully operational craft in Europe’s Galileo navigation constellation have pushed back their launch to around June 2014, industry officials said.

The delay will compromise the goal of Galileo’s owner, the 28-nation European Commission, to demonstrate initial Galileo positioning, navigation and timing services by late 2014.

The latest schedule slip appears to be due to a confluence of unrelated factors, officials said. The first is the production delays on the satellites themselves, which were several months behind schedule following issues on the payload and platform side.

The first two payloads were delivered late by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain to satellite prime contractor OHB AG of Bremen, Germany. OHB then ran into its own separate issues related to the satellite platform and did not deliver the first satellite to the 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA) for testing until last May.

Testing is scheduled to occur at ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC). The second Galileo satellite arrived in August.

But officials said it appears that the ESTEC thermal vacuum chamber, designed to test satellites under conditions resembling those encountered in orbit, was not immediately ready for the Galileo tests and required additional work.

These obstacles meant the two satellites would not be cleared by ESA for shipment to Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in South America in time for a 2013 launch aboard a Europeanized Soyuz rocket.

With these schedule slips, and the last-minute launch postponement by another European Soyuz customer, O3b Networks of Britain’s Channel Islands, the Soyuz manifest for 2014 looks to be at least as crowded as was the 2013 manifest — assuming no more satellite delays.

Glitches aboard the O3b satellites prompted the postponement, and now the company wants two launches aboard Soyuz rockets in 2014 instead of one. ESA’s Sentinel 1A satellite, which had also been a candidate for a 2013 Soyuz launch, is now tentatively slated for early in 2014.

These three campaigns, plus other customers and an undetermined number of Galileo launches — OHB is building 22 satellites for the Galileo constellation — must be shoehorned into a Soyuz manifest that might not be able to accommodate more than four campaigns in 2014.

One official familiar with the status of the Galileo satellites said a six-week test of the first satellite in the ESTEC thermal vacuum chamber would begin in early October. If that shows no issues with the hardware, the second satellite will be put through a similar, but perhaps shorter, thermal vacuum test.

“Everyone is very satisfied with the OHB design,” this official said. “But they took longer than they had thought to perform the integration and testing, and overall satellite preparation at ESTEC, where the satellites were under OHB’s responsibility. At this point a late spring launch looks OK, but making forecasts before thermal vacuum tests is difficult.”