Falcon 9 lifts off from LC-39A, carrying two Galileo satellites. Credits: SpaceX

Falcon 9 Launches Europe’s Galileo Satellites For The First Time

SpaceX's Falcon 9 successfully launched two European Galileo navigation satellites, filling the gap left by the retired Ariane 5 and the delays of Ariane 6

On April 28, at 00:34 UTC, a Falcon 9 Block 5 filled the European launcher gap and successfully deployed two Galileo satellites for Europe’s navigation system.

Falcon 9 lifts off from LC-39A, carrying two Galileo satellites. Credits: SpaceX
Falcon 9 lifts off from LC-39A, carrying two Galileo satellites. Credits: SpaceX

For this mission, the Merlin engines on the bottom of the booster B1060 ignited for the last time in their career, due to the flight being an “expendable” one. The first stage will not be recovered and will splash down in the ocean.

The launch took place from the Historical Launch Complex 39A, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The previous launch of this particular booster was completed on March 24th, marking a 35-day turnaround for its final flight.


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SpaceX fills the gap in Europe’s launcher market

Following the suspension of all European Soyuz rocket launches in February 2022 due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Commission found itself without the selected launcher for Galileo’s satellites. In the absence of the Russian rocket, for the launch of the Galileo spacecraft, Europe could have relied on its Heavy-lift launch vehicle Ariane 5. However, the latter was retired in 2023. Its successor, Ariane 6, has experienced significant development delays.

Initially scheduled for 2020, its maiden flight has been postponed until next summer, in 2024. Europe has thus had to rely on the American Falcon 9 for the launch of important missions for several years. For example, in July 2023, SpaceX launched the ESA’s Euclid space telescope, and in 2024 the EarthCARE satellite. In October they will also deliver the Hera asteroid mission.

Vega-C VV21 with LARES-2 ready for launch on 13 July 2022 at Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Credits: ESA
Vega-C VV21 with LARES-2 is ready for launch on 13 July 2022 at Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Credits: ESA

The crisis of the main European rocket family has been compounded by the issues with the Italian Avio’s Vega C small-lift launcher. Unfortunately, a failure of the Vega C occurred in late 2022 during the VV21 mission. The investigation following the incident, led by ESA, concluded that a component of the Zefiro 40 solid-fuel second stage experienced “thermo-mechanical over-erosion” during the launch. The efforts to address the problem led to a static fire test conducted in June 2023, which also failed. 

During a media briefing held in October, Toni Tolken-Nielsen, ESA’s director of space transportation, announced a viable alternative to the Vega C launcher only after November 2024.


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Ariane 5 retirement and Ariane 6 perspective

Despite the performance of the previous Ariane 5, the competition in the commercial space launch market has drastically increased. The cost per kilogram of payload has been decreasing each year since 2010, pushing ESA into the development of a new launcher.

Ariane 6 - Test removal of Mobile Gantry at Europe's Spaceport in Kourou. Credits: ESA
Ariane 6 – Test removal of Mobile Gantry at Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou. Credits: ESA

The alternative offered by the cheaper Falcon 9, contributed to the ending of the renowned launcher and spurred in 2012 the development of the Ariane 6. Preliminary estimation agreed to be 44 percent less costly than the Ariane 5. However, the costs of the new Ariane launch vehicle have also increased over the years.

Still, Ariane 6 has yet to complete its maiden launch. The debut of the rocket has been delayed many times, the last one being a test of the upper-stage engine aborted after only two minutes of firing.

The test has now been successfully carried out, and preparations for a launch in June or July are underway. This launch date would put the gap between the last Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 launch at one year. This is on top of the fact that the last Ariane 5 rockets had already been booked in advance, temporarily leaving Europe without an indigenous medium-heavy launcher.


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The payloads: Galileo FOC FM25 and FM27

Galileo is a global satellite navigation system conceived in the early 2000s by the European Union. The project’s purpose is to make Europe independent from the American GPS and the Russian GLONASS

Galileo FOC FM25 and FM27 are part of a constellation designed with 30 spacecraft operating in medium Earth orbit (MEO). The altitude of the constellation would be approximately around 23,616 km and an inclination of 56 degrees.

Galileo FOC satellite under construction. Credits: ESA
Galileo FOC satellite under construction. Credits: ESA

The design process commenced in January 2010, with two programs led by a consortium of OHB System AG and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL). The aim was to build the first 14 Galileo-Full Operational Capability (FOC) satellites of the system. The first test satellite, GIOVE-A, was launched in 2005, while the first operational spacecraft was deployed in 2011.

The satellites carry an advanced navigation payload, consisting of two rubidium and two hydrogen maser atomic clocks. From the high technology and achievement of the mission, on February 2nd, 2012, eight other satellites were ordered and built, while in 2017 the amount increased to twenty.

The next launch, carrying Galileo-FOC FM26 and FM28 is scheduled for July of 2024, once again on a Falcon 9. For the following missions, planned for 2025, the launcher Ariane 62 should be ready for use.


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Alberto Pellegrino

Alberto Pellegrino

Passionate Master’s student in Space Engineering, with a love in Art, Cinema, and Explosions

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