The European Union is finalizing the contract with SpaceX to launch four Galileo navigation satellites onboard a pair of Falcon 9 rockets, whose liftoff is currently scheduled for April and July 2024, still subject to confirmation.
The news was announced in a press briefing during the European Space Summit this November in Seville, Spain, by the internal market commissioner for the European Commission, Thierry Breton. The primary objective of launching these satellites is to augment the operational Galileo constellation and act as on-orbit replacements in case of failures.
The allocation for the Falcon 9 launches by the European Commission amounts to €180 million (around $192 million). However, the final hurdle in finalizing the launch contract involves negotiating a security agreement to safeguard the sensitive technologies of Galileo satellites.
Europe lacks reliable launchers
For more than a year, there have been ongoing discussions regarding the potential use of a non-European rocket, such as the Falcon 9, to launch European satellites.
These considerations arose due to delays with the Ariane 6 launcher, issues with the Vega C (which is out of service because of the launch failure in December 2022), and the withdrawal of the Soyuz following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We have no major anomalies ongoing in orbit. We have no trends that indicate it is absolutely urgent to launch, but we want to carry on deploying.”— Francisco-Javier Benedicto Ruiz, ESA’s Director of Navigation
In December 2022 the second Vega-C launch failed due to a defect in the homogeneity of the carbon-carbon material in the nozzle throat of the second-stage Zefiro 40 engine.
Following the recent agreements, Avio is now finalizing with Arianespace the strategy for executing the 17 Vega launches that are currently under contract. The Italian company has received ESA’s go-ahead to independently commercialize the Vega launches.
Galileo is the European Union’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) designed to send radio signals for positioning, navigation, and timing. It is a resource that benefits the lives of European and global citizens, having a huge potential for use in the most diverse sectors, such as energy, transport, agriculture, and finance.
At full capacity, Galileo consists of 30 satellites orbiting on 3 inclined planes on the equator (MEO, circular Medium Earth Orbit) at 23,222 km altitude. With its Open Service offering meter-level accuracy, it is one of the most accurate satellite navigation services in the world.
Moreover, a new service called High Accuracy Service (HAS) has recently been employed in order to increase the level of precision of the GNSS system signal. With a horizontal accuracy of up to 20cm and a vertical one of 40cm, it has made possible real-time positioning corrections.
This high-precision service consists of two levels of operation:
- Service level 1, which is already available, is based on the correction of satellite orbits every 30 seconds and satellite clocks every 10 seconds;
- Service level 2, not yet implemented, focuses on ionospheric corrections, which will be possible thanks to the use of additional ground stations that ESA is arranging with the necessary infrastructure upgrades.