Officials with the European Space Agency (ESA) announce that they have given the green light for launching the first two satellite of the future Galileo satellite navigation constellation this Thursday, on October 20. The Soyuz rocket that will carry the spacecraft is prepped at the launch site.
For this mission, the agency constructed an entire Soyuz launch pad at its French Guiana, South America-based Kourou Spaceport. The facility was constructed using Russian engineers supplied by the Russian Federal Space Agency (RosCosmos).
The Soyuz ST-B delivery system that will take the twin Galileo satellites to orbit is the first Russian spacecraft to launch from the newly-completed test pad. ESA engineers have already checked and double-checked both the installation and the rocket itself, in order to make sure it's ready to fly.
The Galileo In-Orbit Validation (IOV) satellites – designated PFM and FM2 – are already encapsulated inside the Fregat-MT upper stage that will inject them into the correct orbit. Both spacecraft are affixed to a special dispenser, which will propel them in opposite directions once they are deployed.
ESA reports that the mating process connecting all these components together concluded late last week. More recently, the Soyuz rocket was transferred from the integration hangar to its launch pad. The two installations are 600 meters (roughly 1,970 feet) away from each other.
Keeping in line with the traditional way of transporting Soyuz rockets, ESA also built a large railway from the hangar to the launch pad, on which the famous Soyuz delivery system is transported horizontally. The vehicle is lifted in its launch position only when it reaches the launch facility.
Over the coming days, ESA plans to conduct a number of rehearsals, so that its engineers and mission controllers become prepared for any and all contingencies that may develop from launching a rocket no one at Kourou is used to.
At the same time, it's also worthy to note that this is the first time a Soyuz rocket will be launched outside the former Soviet Union. The only two spaceports that support this type of rocket are the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan, and the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, in Russia.
ESA decided to opt for the Russian Soyuz for two primary reasons. The first is that the design, though old, is extremely efficient and has a high success rate. The second is that this delivery system complements ESA's existing family or rockets – Ariane and Vega – very nicely.
After the two IOV satellites are deployed, ESA expects to put an additional two Galileo spacecraft in orbit next year. After this initial stage of the project is completed, an additional 26 satellites will be deployed, so that the European agency can achieve global coverage.