Surplus fuel loaded in error onboard the launch rocket caused loss of three new GLONASS satellites on December 5. The mishap burdened the DM-3 booster rocket with an excess of 1.5 to 2 tons of fuel, causing it to deviate from its course after blast-off and dive into the Pacific Ocean instead of reaching orbit altitude — dashing hopes for an imminent, nearly full global operational GLONASS capability.
“The problem was not with the fuel service unit at the launching site, but with one of the sensors showing the fuel level,” said Gennady Raikunov, the head of the Central Scientific Research Institute of Machine Building. “We do not rule out the factor of human error,” he said, adding that the Russian corporation Energia may be linked to the incident.
News correspondent Peter de Selding, writing in the December 10 issue of Space News, reported that a new version of the Block DM upper rocket stage, which was used for the GLONASS launch, features larger propellant tanks than earlier versions. The DM stage is built by RSC Energia of Korolev, Russia.
“In what appears to have been a remarkable oversight,” de Selding wrote, “the personnel fueling the Block DM stage for the GLONASS launch did not account for the larger tanks. That led to loading between 1,000 and 2,000 kilograms more propellant on the Block DM stage than what had been planned for the mission. As a result of the excess propellant, the Proton’s third stage, suffering from the additional weight it was carrying, underperformed, placing the Block DM stage and the stack of GLONASS satellites into a lower-than-planned suborbital drop-off point.”
Get Back on That Horse. On December 12, the next-generation GLONASS-K1 satellite, serial number 11, was shipped to the Plesetsk Cosmodrome about 800 kilometers north of Moscow. According to manufacturer ISS Reshetnev, the satellite will transmit five navigation signals: two signals of normal and two of high precision in the L1 and L2 frequency bands, and a new code-division multiple-access (CDMA) civil signal in the L3 band (1205 MHz). The last is destined to shift the Russian constellation at least partly towards CDMA signal broadcast, in line with GPS and Galileo. It points towards possible and eventual interoperability of some kind between the systems.
Launch is scheduled for December 27 or 28 on a modernized Soyuz-2.1.b rocket equipped with a Fregat upper stage.
March FOC Vowed. Anatoly Perminov, the head of Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, has stated that the setback is temporary and he plans to have a full 24-satellite constellation functioning by next March. He plans to accomplish this by repositioning one of the satellites now in maintenance and then bringing it back on line and by launching two more satellites over the next few months.
Galileo Supervisory Authority enroute to Prague
The Czech Republic has after an intensive multi-year lobbying effort landed a Galileo plum: the siting of the European GNSS Supervisory Authority (GSA) headquarters in its capital. The GSA has for the past three years worked out of Brussels, and longer prior to that, under the title Galileo Joint Undertaking.
An official with the GSA told GPS World informally, “I can confirm: the decision has been adopted today by the Competiveness Council. However the move might not be immediate. The Commission claimed (rightly) to be involved in the timing of the move to minimize disruption, to ensure continuation of the ongoing work, and to avoid the disruption of the progress towards the FOC of Galileo. The financial repercussions must also be assessed.”
In an interview on Czech television, Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas called the decision a success for the entire country. “This is very good news because this will bring the most advanced technologies to the Czech Republic and, accordingly, one of most technologically advanced systems in the European Union will be controlled from here, from the Czech Republic,” he said.
Necas’ statement was not entirely accurate, as the GSA does not actually control any technology. The Galileo constellation of current (two) and future (from four to 18) satellites remains firmly in the control of the European Space Agency (ESA), administratively based in Paris with many technical activities undertaken in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, and further under the thumb of the European Commission (EC), irrevocably grounded in Brussels.
Upcoming tasks faced by the GSA include most importantly the commercialization of Galileo — which may be seen as largely a marketing activity — and security accreditation and the operation of the Galileo security center.
Several countries vied to host the agency, and in the final days Prague was competing against Noordwijk itself for the post. The siting of the GSA outside the EU’s Western European core represents a nod to its pledge to include newer Eastern members in governing activities, specifically to give preference to new member states when looking for headquarters for its new agencies. Before the vote, the Czech Republic was one of four member states that joined the EU in 2004 that had not yet been chosen to host an EU agency or body.
The X-37B, debriefing after its 220-day experimental mission.
Unmanned Spacecraft Returns Home
The U.S. Air Force’s first unmanned re-entry spacecraft landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base on December 3, after a 220-day maiden voyage, conducting on-orbit experiments. The X-37B, named Orbital Test Vehicle 1 (OTV-1), is a totally autonomous vehicle that depends a great deal upon GPS for
GPS provided a significant contribution to the X-37B’s re-entry and landing — the first unmanned spacecraft that landed like an aircraft. It fired its orbital maneuver engine in low-Earth orbit to perform an autonomous reentry before landing.
The Air Force’s newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft, X-37B performs risk reduction, experimentation, and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.
The Air Force is preparing to launch the next X-37B, OTV-2, in spring 2011 aboard an Atlas V booster.
Overall, the program “has huge implications for the future of unmanned space flight and for the capabilities of the USAF and DoD missions in space. The GPS is a key component of this capability.”
“To go much farther,” an informed source told GPS World, “gets me into territory that I cannot discuss in this venue.”