Galileo Navigation Satellites Lift Off Thursday

Credit: European Space Agency

Europe’s answer to America’s Global Positioning System (GPS) is set to be launched into space this week

Two Galileo satellites that will signify the start of the European Union’s answer to the American Global Positioning System (GPS) are set to be launched into orbit aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.

The launch will take place from the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Lift-off is scheduled for Thursday, 20 October, at 10.34am BST.

GPS alternative

The launch of the two Galileo satellites will provide Europe with an independent global satellite navigation system, but it is also noteworthy because, instead of using the Ariane 5 rocket, the European Space Agency (ESA) has opted for the cheaper Russian Soyuz rocket. This is despite the costs of transporting the gantry and the rocket itself from Russia.

Moving the Soyuz to French Guiana will add to the cargo carrying capacity of the rocket. According to the BBC, by launching closer to the equator, the rocket receives a bigger boost from the Earth’s rotation, meaning it can lift nearly double the mass of a normal Baikonur payload – a maximum of three tonnes, as opposed to 1.7 tonnes – into a geosynchronous orbit 36,000 kilometres above the Earth.

ESA says the Soyuz-2 rocket is a “trusted workhouse” among space launch vehicles. It is the latest version of the Russian rocket that began the space race more than 50 years ago by carrying both the first satellite (Sputnik) and the first man (Yuri Gagarin) into space.

Long time coming

ESA has been working to develop Galileo since the 1990s as an alternative to the US GPS and Russian GLONASS systems, which European authorities claim they have no control over. The Chinese are developing their Compass navigation system, and India has its own Regional Navigational Satellite System.

However GPS remains the most widely used satellite positioning system in the Western world. It has already become the standard way of navigating for many people. Last week, for example, a military excercise off the coast of Scotland had to stop using GPS jamming technology, because of safety fears for local fishermen.

American control

There are concerns that if the GPS signals were switched off tomorrow by the United States, many ship and aircraft crews would find it inconvenient and difficult to revert to traditional navigation methods.

The problem is that GPS is still technically controlled by the US military, although in 1996 US president Bill Clinton issued a policy directive declaring GPS to be a dual-use system, in recognition of its increasing importance to civilian users.

In March, a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering warned that people in the UK had become overly reliant on satellite navigation systems such as GPS, making the technology a prime target for criminals intent on disrupting the country’s infrastructure.

When the Galileo system is fully deployed, it will consist of 30 satellites (27 operational + 3 active spares), positioned at roughly 23,222 kilometres above the Earth.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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