BRUSSELS — The European Commission on Jan. 28 confirmed that it will continue using Europeanized Russian Soyuz rockets to launch Europe’s Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellites despite the rocket’s recent anomalies.
In a concurrent announcement, the commission’s new space director, Elzbieta Bienkowska, said her top policy initiative in 2015 is to create a single European market for high-resolution satellite imagery to force owners of high-resolution satellites to offer their products on a nondiscriminatory basis throughout the 28-nation European Union.
In announcing the Soyuz decision, whose sensitivity was such that it required a meeting of the European College of Commissioners — all 28 European Union members plus the European Commission president — Bienkowska said the priority should be getting Galileo in service as quickly as possible.
Toward that end, two satellites will be launched on Soyuz rockets in March, another pair by midyear and a third pair by the end of the year, if possible. In addition to Soyuz, the European Commission has ordered three heavy-lift Ariane 5 rockets for Galileo deployment. Each Ariane 5 can carry four Galileo spacecraft.
Bienkowska’s formal European Commission title is commissioner for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and SMEs, or small and midsize enterprises. In that capacity, she has responsibility for space policy.
Making her first public remarks on space policy here during the seventh annual Conference on European Space Policy, Bienkowska said the August failure of a Europeanized Soyuz rocket’s upper stage, which left two operational Galileo satellites in a useless orbit, should not be blown out of proportion.
“Space is a risky business,” Bienkowska told journalists after her speech. “If we want to take the most benefit from space applications, we have to accept these risks.”
Didier Faivre, director of navigation at the European Space Agency, which is the technical and procurement manager for the European Commission-owned Galileo network, said Jan. 27 that two Galileo satellites are ready to be shipped to Europe’s Guiana Space Center in South America within a week.
Bienkowska said that under her mandate, she has set as a goal the start of early Galileo global navigation services by 2016 — which would require 10-12 satellites in orbit — and that full service from a 30-satellite constellation should begin by late 2020.
Industry officials said the first goal is feasible if one assumes that two of the four Galileo in-orbit test satellites can be made to function normally — they have had power supply issues — and if the two operational satellites placed into the wrong orbit can be introduced into the constellation. ESA has modified the orbit of one of those satellites and plans to do the same for the other.
ESA officials have said the two satellites can be made part of the Galileo infrastructure despite their unplanned orbits but that doing so would require additional investment in the ground network to assure that users do not suffer inferior positioning accuracy.
One European Commission official said Bienkowska’s budget includes funding as early as this year for additional Galileo satellites. Twenty-two fully operational Galileo spacecraft have been ordered from prime contractor OHB AG of Bremen, Germany, including the two spacecraft launched in August.
How many of the four in-orbit validation satellites can be reliably inserted into an operational Galileo system is unclear as the root cause of the power anomaly remains unknown.
Depending on how these satellites’ future utility is viewed, the commission needs to order at least six more Galileo satellites to have a 30-satellite constellation.
Ordering them from OHB to benefit from an existing production line is one option, but some government officials fear creating a de facto Galileo supplier monopoly. Running a new competition would take more time.
The goal of 30 fully usable satellites in orbit by 2020 remains ambitious whatever the contractor, industry officials said.
Bienkowska also said she is crafting a directive that would make it easier for customers in EU nations without high-resolution Earth observation satellites to get access to data. She said nations with their own satellites had not been fair or transparent in their dealings with other governments and customers.
She acknowledged that these imagery-supplier nations will object to her directive, but she said it remains her highest-priority initiative for 2015.
Several government and industry officials interviewed after Bienkowska’s speech were surprised by her remarks. “Does she expect governments that have invested hundreds of millions in satellite observation systems now to distribute the data free of charge?” one government official asked.
“Also, any directive like this will have to exclude military satellite data such as Helios in France and SAR-Lupe in Germany,” the official said, referring to France’s optical and Germany’s radar reconnaissance satellite systems.