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Swiss clock maker stalls Galileo

Switzerland’s high-end clock maker SpectraTime is apparently creating headaches for European and other satellite builders. SpectraTime makes expensive – but highly accurate – Atomic Clocks for use in satellites, including Europe’s Galileo GPS craft, but also other navigation satellites used by China and India.

The trouble is that they are, according to the European Space Agency (ESA), not all working correctly. The Galileo system is Europe’s rival to the USA’s GPS satellites. Each Galileo satellite carries 4 of these SpectraTime clocks, and only one is needed for efficient and correct operation. To date, according to trade mag Space Intel Report, 10 of these clocks have suffered in-orbit outages.

The – as yet unidentified problems – has forced the European Space Agency to delay launching other Galileo satellites until the cause has been clearly identified.

One particular Galileo satellite has suffered two outages, meaning it still has a backup capacity in the event of a third failure, ESA Director-General Jan Woerner said. Woerner, quoted by the BBC, added: “Everybody is raising this question: should we postpone the next launch until we find the root cause, or should we launch?  You can give both answers at the same time. You can say we wait until we find the solution but that means if more clocks fail we will reduce the capability of Galileo. But if we launch we will at least maintain if not increase the [capability], but we may then take the risk that a systematic problem is not considered. We are right now in this discussion about what to do.”

However, the ESA’s head of the Galileo project, Javier Benedicto, says an initial investigation cautiously concluded that there is nothing wrong with SpectraTime’s core technology, and suggested that the problem is likely in a piece of related circuitry or component.  He stressed that the Galileo programme had 72 clocks in orbit, and they had not been able to replicate the problems on ground-based units.

There are other worries. Although not specifically named or identified by Benedicto, it seems other system operators have suffered similar problems with their on-board clocks.

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