The BBC Blogs - Spaceman

Tick-tock - the clock is running on Galileo

Jonathan Amos | 21:17 UK time, Saturday, 14 November 2009

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Most people have had a pop at Europe's proposed sat-nav system, Galileo, down the years. Let's face it, it's been an easy target.

Artist's impression of an IOV satellite in orbit"How not to implement a large-scale infrastructure project" is the criticism you often hear. "The Common Agricultural Policy in the sky" also became a popular jibe for a while.

Galileo will be at least five years late on its original timescale and hugely over budget.

It should have been fully operational by now and have cost the European taxpayer no more than 1.8bn euros.

As it is, only a partial Galileo system will be up and running by the end of 2013 (the current target date) and the projected total cost to the taxpayer is looking north of 5.5bn euros [PDF].

But things are at least now moving. The ground segment is coming along - see the picture on this page of the shiny control centre in Oberpfaffenhofen in Germany.

And you'll have seen this past week my report on the In-Orbit Validation (IOV) models, the four satellites that will prove the system.

The payloads are nearing completion in Portsmouth, UK, and will soon be despatched to Rome, Italy, for integration with the rest of their spacecraft elements.

The first IOV pair is booked for launch on a Soyuz rocket in November 2010; the second pair in early 2011.

Friday was the deadline day for the satellite consortia to submit their Best and Final Offers (BAFOs) - the final prices at which they are prepared to build the remaining spacecraft needed to operate Galileo.

The satellite segment is just one of six so called "work packages" (WP) that divide up the job of implementing Galileo.

Control Centre in Oberpfaffenhofen in GermanyWe're expecting very soon - before the year's end - contract announcements on three of these packages:

On System Support, to bring all the elements of the project together; on the Space Segment, to build the satellites themselves; and on Launch Services, to provide the rockets that will loft the spacecraft.

In 2007 when the whole programme was re-shaped, Galileo was given the target of being "fully operational" by 2013; and by that, one would normally mean 27 satellites in orbit. That's not going to happen.

The spacecraft cannot be made fast enough (a Galileo satellite will take two-and-a-half to three years to build) and the launchers are unlikely to be available even if they could.

The primary rocket for the job, a Soyuz, will launch only two Galileo satellites at once; an Ariane 5 will probably be used to loft a few batches of four.

Sixteen satellites plus the four IOVs is the figure now being talked about. Whilst not a full constellation, it is a number that would make a significant difference to anyone using GPS-and-Galileo-enabled receiving equipment.

Nonetheless, Europe had better keep up the momentum if it wants a slice of what could be an exciting future.

Soyuz rocketGPS has been an immense wealth creator. Anyone who has any doubt about that should go and have a look at the Forbes Top 400 wealthiest people in the USA. Check out the billionaires Gary Burrell and Min Kao.

If you're not sure who these men are, join the first three letters of their names - "Gar" and "Min" - and you'll understand what I'm talking about.

The next generation of sat-nav has the potential for even bigger returns, for the simple reason that location functionality is now becoming ubiquitous in mobile phones.

The improved availability and accuracy of fixes, allied to databases that can be rapidly passed over the cellular networks, means that sat-nav will increasingly be used to do many more interesting things than just finding your way down a motorway.

There is money to be made in the coming years. There are plenty of sharp entrepreneurs out there who realise this and are preparing for it now.

If Europe doesn't grab the chance to exploit the opportunities that are coming, others most certainly will.

Watch this space.

LauncherOne: Virgin Galactic's other project

Jonathan Amos | 14:35 UK time, Tuesday, 10 November 2009

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You are going to hear a lot in the next few weeks about Virgin Galactic, not least because on 7 December the company will unveil SpaceShipTwo in the Mojave Desert, California.

This is the rocket plane Sir Richard Branson will use to take fare-paying passengers on sub-orbital flights in the coming years.

In this posting, however, I want to concentrate on another Galactic project which is now gathering pace - the LauncherOne satellite system.

Potential architecture for LauncherOne

Back in January, I reported on early discussions between the Branson outfit and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) in Guildford.

SSTL is a world leader in the production of low-cost small satellites, and it was keen to explore the possibility of working with Virgin Galactic on a way to get these spacecraft into orbit much more cheaply than is currently possible.

The concept would be somewhat similar to the US Pegasus system, which uses a former airliner to lift a booster to 40,000ft, before releasing it to make its own way into space.

Virgin Galactic's aim is to provide an air-launched system which is faster, cheaper, and more flexible.

It would use SpaceShipTwo's mothership, "Eve", as the launch platform.

Dr Adam Baker, then at SSTL, was hoping for some money from the UK government to do a small feasibility study. The hope was that if things came together, LauncherOne could be a UK-built rocket despatched by Eve running out of a British airport somewhere.

Well, the money wasn't immediately forthcoming and Dr Baker has now moved across to Virgin Galactic to lead its own in-house efforts to give the project momentum.

So where are we? Dr Baker has been in post little more than a month. He's speaking to anyone and everyone, from those who might be interested in helping to build such a launcher to those who might want to use it to put a payload into orbit.

Certainly, there's a compelling need for a cheaper, more flexible launch system for small satellites.

At the moment, companies like SSTL are in a less than satisfactory position.

They often have to wait on the availability of converted Soviet-era missiles, such as Dnepr. This can add months to the timeline of a project.

Sometimes, the launches can get bumped by "more urgent" Russian military payloads, or have to wait while a problem on a satellite co-passenger is resolved (small satellites on a Dnepr are launched in batches).

The issue for LauncherOne, of course, is cost.

At the moment, a small satellite wanting to get into space may have to pay something like $5m-$10m. Virgin Galactic really has to get that down to $1m-$2m for this venture to make financial sense.

And to make that happen, Dr Baker believes the development cost of the rocket to first flight also needs to be kept the right side $100m:

"The less we can spend developing this, the easier it is going to be to recoup the cost, and the lower the launch price can be.
"Historically, rockets that have been developed from scratch have cost a lot more than $100m. We want to take as much advantage from all the previous 50 years of effort in designing launch vehicles to get the best from the market."

The British imperative is still there. If this vehicle can come out of UK, so much the better, says Dr Baker. He'd love nothing better than for LauncherOne to be a UK-led initiative. But Virgin will not be overly sentimental about this. It's a business.

Interestingly, feasibility studies have been done in this field before in the UK, including on the possibility of using a Vulcan bomber as the platform for an air-launched satellite service. At least one small assessment has found the economics don't stack up.

Perhaps Virgin Galactic and British industry can show otherwise.

Who'd have thought before Brian Binnie and Mike Melville made their historic flights in SpaceShipOne that trips on a civil spaceliner would soon be possible?

Watch this space.

Jason and the quest for funding

Jonathan Amos | 17:08 UK time, Tuesday, 3 November 2009

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We're a month away from a decision on a very important future space mission and I thought I'd post about it now if only to mark the calendar.

It also happens to pick up on a theme I raised in yesterday's entry about turning scientific satellites into ongoing operational programmes.

The future satellite is Jason-3.

Jason satellite

It would be the fourth incarnation of an altimeter spacecraft that has already returned a remarkable 17-year data-set on sea-level height.

The funding situation (that is, whether there is enough) will be determined at a December council meeting of Eumetsat, the organisation that looks after Europe's meteorological satellite service.

Jason-3 is something of a test case. It will test how serious nations are about maintaining continuous, long-term, cross-calibrated data on key environmental parameters... in the midst of a credit crunch.

Everyone you speak to says this is a really important mission, but the issue as ever, is who is going to pay for it. And there is a nice little UK dimension to all of this which I'll go into shortly.

To explain Jason's significance to those not aware of the programme, it is the series of spacecraft that has detailed the recent steady rise of global waters by about 3mm per year.

Critically, because each succeeding spacecraft in the series was able to match its measurements directly against its predecessor in orbit, the data is "gold standard". It is this quality of continuity that enables scientists to discern real trends.

The story goes back to 1992 and the launch of the Topex/Poseidon mission. The data quest was then taken up by the Jason-1 satellite (launched in 2001) and by Jason-2 (launched in 2008).

Jason-1 is still working but it will fail; all satellites eventually fail. This would leave just Jason-2 in orbit. That being the case, preparation for its successor must begin soon if the space baton is not to be dropped when the digits eventually flip on Jason-2.

Knowing ocean surface elevation has many and varied applications, both short-term and long-term.

Just as surface air pressure reveals what the atmosphere is doing up above, so ocean height will betray details about the behaviour of water down below.

The data gives clues to temperature and salinity. When combined with gravity information, it will also indicate current direction and speed.

The oceans store vast amounts of heat from the Sun; and how they move that energy around the globe and interact with the atmosphere are what drive key elements of our weather and the climate system.

Put simply, to understand climate you have to understand the oceans, and one of the best ways to understand the oceans globally is to measure surface elevation.

All good stuff, but back to the Jason-3 budget.

In the past, Jason has been led by the US and France. That will continue to be the case.

Its importance though to meteorologists has meant that Eumetsat has become involved in a big way; as has the EU because of its Earth monitoring project called GMES.

The total cost of the mission is of the order of 252m euros, of which Europe will cover about 146m. (One of the big contributions from the US will be the provision of a launcher.)

The numbers then stack up like this: the European Commission will provide 26m, the European Space Agency will put in 7m; and the French, as one of the senior partners, will sign off almost 49m. The French, for example, will build the satellite platform.

That leaves just over 63m from Eumetsat. The organisation is looking for a commitment in December of 90% of that figure to get the Jason-3 project up and running.

Now, here's the point of all this. Jason-3 is not a mandatory programme within Eumetsat; it is an optional programme. If a member state decides it likes the project, it "chooses" to subscribe.

Usually, although not always, the subscription is made at the comparative Gross National Income (GNI) level of the member state within Eumetsat.

For the UK, for example, the GNI Eumetsat figure is 16.173%. It is a large figure because Britain is one of the richest nations in Europe.

You can see straightaway, therefore, that if the Jason-3 programme is going to clear the 90% bar in December, the decision the London government makes on funding could be critical.

I mentioned Jason-3 to the British science minister Lord Drayson when I saw him a couple of weeks ago in the Palace of Westminster and he confirmed that discussions within government were ongoing.

It would be wrong to suggest that Jason-3 hangs on the British. Other Eumetsat delegations will play their part.

What it does emphasise, however, is the need to find ways of funding ongoing flagship programmes like Jason that don't involve protracted re-negotiation every five years.

Watch this space.

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