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Silver Linings for GNSS?

Glen Gibbons
The Galileo satellite launch failure is not really an unmitigated disaster, and in the long run several good things will probably come out of this.

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My favorite bumper sticker this month: “Oh, no! Not another learning experience!”

After 20 years of putting together a European GNSS program, disappointment over the skewed launch of the first fully operational Galileo satellites is palpable and widely felt. For end users, it is uniformly bad news, and no system provider that sincerely wants to achieve interoperability and robustness in a system of GNSS systems can relish the European program’s current difficulties.

Anyway, it’s not really an unmitigated disaster, and in the long run several good things will probably come out of this.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m writing a new silver linings playbook for rain clouds, but here are a couple of positive outcomes that seem likely:

The United States expedites its restoration of a national capability to build heavy-lift rocket engines and Europeans get practical lessons about how to solve some tricky problems and, in a longer timeframe, how future system designs for GNSS might actually work.

First, launch capacity. The United States stopped investing in heavy lift rocket engine manufacturing in the late 1980s, an unfortunate part of the deindustrialization of America that was beginning then. President George W. Bush continued the trend by phasing out the Space Shuttle program in favor of manned lunar missions and further exploration of Mars. Among other problems, that left the United States without the ability to get its own astronauts to the International Space Station, leaving us dependent on Russia spacecraft.

The engines that drive Atlas 5 rockets, the workhorse of the United Launch Alliance partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, are Russian RD-180s, of which this country has a limited supply in storage. The most recent GPS satellite — Block IIR-7 — was launched on an Atlas 5 in August. Access to these engines could fall victim to reciprocal Russian/Western sanctions in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

So, it’s good that, with the encouragement of NASA and military leaders, the United States is moving toward rebuilding a domestic manufacturing base for its rockets.

And while we’re having Cold War flashbacks, let’s not get too engrossed by the conspiracy theories that began cropping up about intentional Russian sabotage of the Galileo mission as payback for the European Union’s ambivalent criticism of Vladimir Putin’s policy toward Ukraine. Given the experience of Russia’s launch program in recent years, including the loss of numerous GLONASS spacecraft, it’s obvious that screw-ups can happen without the need for a conspiracy.

After all, most Europeans understand that a “stuck” valve on a Russian natural gas pipeline would bring much more immediate and extensive pressure on their nations.

As for the silver lining that could await Europe in the wake of the latest Galileo miscue: the European Space Agency (ESA) now has an opportunity to put more of the engineering expertise to work that Europe has built up over the past two decades with its GNSS program. After all, the Galileo program is not at risk — thanks to the foresight of the European Commission, ESA, and the European Parliament in funding the program to completion.

Moreover, a good deal of relevant research into signal, satellite, and constellation design has already been done as part of planning for the evolution of Galileo’s next phase. Some of the lessons learned in the Hi-GPS effort, a proposal to put GPS-like ranging measurements on Iridium satellites, could also apply. And, for that matter, the experience with the TRANSIT program that preceded GPS.

Other lessons are certain to come out of the Galileo rescue effort. As media magnate Sumner Redstone once said, “Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe.”

Not learning from this situation would be the real failure.

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