Experts are trying to determine what went wrong after two satellites from Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation program were sent into the wrong orbit, Agence France-Presse reported.
The pair, launched from a space pad in Kourou, French Guiana, last Friday, were intended to be the first two fully operational satellites in Europe’s new-generation navigation system. The 5.4 billion euro (US$7.2 billion) program aims to give the European Union independence in satellite navigation from the United States’ Global Positioning System, according to the wire agency.
Launched by a Russian-made Soyuz rocket, the satellites should have been sent into a circular orbit at an altitude of 23,500 kilometers (14,600 miles), inclined at 56 degrees to the equator. However, apparently due to a problem with the rocket’s upper stage, they were placed in an elliptical orbit at a height of 17,000 kilometres, according to the wire agency.
Investigators from the European Space Agency and launch operator Arianespace will work with an “internal task force” set up by the European Commission to sort out the problem.
But experts said it seemed unlikely the two misplaced satellites could be brought into the right orbit and used.
Unlike bigger satellites, which carry larger tanks of hydrazine propellant to adjust their position, the two Galileo satellites weigh only 700 kilos and only have enough fuel for minor course adjustments, the report said.
“If it were just a small [orbital) correction, it would be possible, but this one really is major,” French astrophysicist Alain Dupas was quoted as saying.
“The fuel reserves will definitely not be enough to get the satellites on the right track… Also, if you start using up your fuel at this stage, you reduce the satellite’s operational span,” he added.
European Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship Ferdinando Nelli Feroci said he stood by the project because of its “strategic importance”.
He also said he was confident the satellite constellation — 24 satellites in all — will be put in place by 2017 as planned.
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