It is years behind schedule. But on Friday, two satellites belonging to the European navigation system Galileo are heading into orbit. The system promises to be more precise than anything currently available. But Europe has paid dearly for its autonomy.
There are some, of course, who might say the launch came a decade late. But officially, Friday’s launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana — carrying the first two satellites for the European navigation system Galileo — was only delayed by one day.
Originally set for liftoff on Thursday, an “anomaly (was) detected during fueling,” according to a statement released soon after the aborted launch by Arianespace, the commercial arm of the European Space Agency. Arianespace CEO Jean-Yves Le Gall stressed that the problem had to do with on-the-ground fueling equipment rather than with the rocket itself. The defective part was quickly replaced.
The precaution is understandable. When it takes off, the Soyuz rocket will be carrying a valuable payload — nothing less than the technical heart of the new navigation system, Europe’s answer to the GPS system. Each of the two satellites contains two atomic clocks from Spectra time, a Swiss company famous for the precision — and prices — of its time pieces. Each clock costs a few hundred thousand euros each, and are far from elegant. Indeed, they look similar to a mechanic’s metal toolbox. But these clocks only lose or gain one second about every 3 million years.