Two for two! Flight of Galileo navigational satellites marks dual launches of Soyuz booster
It’s not every day that two rockets take to the sky. Even rarer is the flight of two of the same family of boosters during that same time frame. Today was just such a day for the Soyuz rocket. In fact, a mere two hours and four minutes after a NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts lifted off for the International Space Station atop their Soyuz booster – another Soyuz, this one launching from the Spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana, thundered off the launch pad and into the sky.
The Arianespace Soyuz-2-1b booster lifted off at 5:46:18 p.m. EDT (6:46:18 local Guiana time, 21:46 GMT) from the jungles of French Guiana with the next two satellites in Europe’s navigation constellation.
Riding atop the booster, safely cocooned inside a four-meter fairing, were the two Galileo-FOC (FM-03 and FM-04) navigation satellites. The “green light” for the launch was provided the day prior, on March 26. The flight, officially dubbed “VS11”, will see two Galileo Full Operational Capability (FOC) spacecraft ferried into geosynchronous orbit by the medium-lift booster.
The launch took place from the Ensemble de Lancement Soyouz, or “ELS”, which is a purpose-built facility constructed to handle the Soyuz booster.
A pre-launch review was carried out on Wednesday to confirm that the Soyuz 2-1b booster as well as the infrastructure that will support the flight were ready to support this launch. Also reviewed was the complex network of downrange tracking stations that monitor the rocket’s journey into the black.
Whereas the public might think that with this successful launch the mission is over – the truth is much different. Upon reaching orbit, Soyuz’s Fregat upper stage took over the duties of getting the two satellites into their proper orbit. After several burns were conducted, the flight, lasting 3 hours and 47 minutes will conclude with the deployment of both satellites.
The Soyuz 2-1b booster was rolled out in the horizontal position, just as the one that ferried the new ISS residents to orbit did yesterday. A three-staged rocket, the Soyuz was brought out of the MIK integration facility, which is located in the northwest area of the Spaceport. Once at the launch pad, the rocket and its precious cargo were raised into the vertical position, embraced by four large mechanical support arms.
At this point in the processing ‘flow’, things differentiated from Soyuz launches at the Baikonur and Plesetsk Cosmodromes as a purpose-built 53-meter-tall mobile gantry was moved into place. This structure provides a shielded, protective environment around what Arianespace has called the “upper composite” – the portion of the rocket that contains the payload – in this case the two Galileo satellites.
The total payload weighed in at about 3,521 lbs (1,597 kg) with the two spacecraft weighing 3,148 lbs (1,428 kg). These satellites are similar to both the U.S. GPS and the Russian GLONASS constellations, and are being fielded on behalf of the European Commission. So much so, that they are inter-operable with both systems. The European Space Agency has been delegated as the design and procurement agent on the Commission’s behalf.
Europe has been working for some time now to get this fleet into operation. The two spacecraft launched today will now join four other Galileo satellites which were launched in 2011 and 2012 (not including the two launched last year, which will now serve as test articles). These spacecraft were also launched atop a Soyuz rocket, but they do not mark the first flight of systems meant to validate the design.
Two Galileo In-Orbit Validation Experiment, or “GIOVE”, spacecraft were launched to validate the concepts of the system as well as to secure frequencies which would fly on the constellation with the International Telecommunications Union. GIOVE-A was launched in 2005, with GIOVE-B taking flight three years later in 2008. Having fulfilled their mission parameters, the two spacecraft have since been retired and placed into a 14,802 mile (23,822 km) high “graveyard orbit”.
After GIOVE was completed, the first four spacecraft to be launched were still not ready to provide navigational services, however. Now, Europe is ready to begin that effort in earnest. It is hoped that with the two satellites launched today that ”Full Operational Capability” can begin.
The Soyuz 2-1b, or “Soyuz ST-B”, launch vehicle – which carried out today’s flight – is a derivative of the venerable Russian rocket which has been in service since 28 November 1966. While the rocket’s exterior looks virtually identical to the older versions of the rocket – it has an array of modifications meant to bring the iconic rocket into the 21st century. These include a digital control system, an upgraded RD-0124 rocket engine as well as a 13.4 feet (4 meters) “ST” (hence the name) payload fairing. The Soyuz ST-B was assembled in the horizontal integration building or “MIK”.
The rocket was rolled out to the 2,300-foot (700 meters) from the Horizontal Integration Hangar to the Spaceport’s launch site this past Monday. Once there, it was hydraulically lifted from the horizontal to the vertical position, then the rocket had the mobile gantry put in place around it in preparation for the arrival of its cargo.
The Soyuz launch site at the Kourou Spaceport utilizes elements that have been used at Baikonur Cosmodrome for decades. As noted, the Soyuz ST-B serves as a medium-lift rocket with the Ariane 5 serving as a heavy-lift rocket and the Vega filling the role as a light-to-medium class launcher. The vehicle assembly building is similar in layout to those at the Baikonur and Plesetsk Cosmodromes. As at these sites, the launch vehicle is assembled horizontally and then rolled out to the pad.
Video courtesy of ESA / SpaceVids.tv
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.