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UK firm ships 'last' sat-nav payload

Do Not UseDo Not Use 13/05/2016 By Jonathan Amos
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UK satellite manufacturer SSTL has reached a key milestone in its work on Galileo, the EU's version of GPS.

The company has just shipped its 22nd navigation payload, and the last under its current work contract.

Essentially the "brains" of a sat-nav spacecraft, this payload is already in the hands of consortium partner, OHB of Bremen, Germany, which will complete final assembly and testing.

Galileo is expected to begin public services by the end of this year.

Twelve satellites are already in orbit transmitting timing and location data. A further two are set to launch on a Soyuz rocket on 24 May. Another four are scheduled to go up on an Ariane rocket before 2016 is out.

Every payload for these spacecraft has been prepared in Britain. This has involved integrating a pan-European supply of components, including the all-important Swiss atomic clocks that drive Galileo's signals.

"The UK is the centre of competence for navigation payloads," said Dr John Paffett, the director of telecommunications and navigation at SSTL.

"In fact, if you think about the performance we are now seeing on the first Galileo satellites then I would argue that the UK can also be regarded as the world centre of competence in these payloads."

The European Commission has said that the full satellite constellation (with spares) should comprise 30 platforms, meaning Brussels will soon have to award another spacecraft manufacturing contract if it wants to keep the project on track.

It goes without saying that SSTL, which is based in Guildford, will be bidding for the work.

Europe's Galileo system under construction

A project of the European Commission and the European Space Agency

30 satellites are to be launched in batches of two and four at a time

Galileo will work alongside the US-based GPS and the Russian Glonass systems

Full system promises real-time positioning down to a metre or less

It should deepen and extend high-value markets already initiated by GPS

The EC, because it lacks the necessary technical expertise, has engaged the European Space Agency to manage the procurement of the Galileo satellites and their ground control infrastructure.

In a video message to an SSTL celebration event on Thursday, Paul Verhoef, Esa's new navigation director, congratulated the company on its performance, but then warned it not to be complacent in the upcoming bidding process.

"In the last competition - if you remember well - the then incumbent thought they had it all cashed in, and they thought it was just an issue of going through the motions. But they hadn't calculated on the determination of yourselves and OHB. Don't fall into the same trap! Do your best to try go win it."

Mr Verhoef was referencing a consortium of Europe's two biggest space companies - Airbus (previously Astrium) and Thales Alenia Space - who had done the early development on Galileo but then missed out on the contract to build the operational satellite system.

Lord Willetts, a former Conservative science minister, is now a non-executive director at SSTL.

He said the company would do all it could to hang on to the business: "This paints a picture of what our country is capable of doing.

"I think many people on the continent regard Britain as a services economy. They don't think we still make things, and they don't appreciate that we can make very hi-tech things - like the satellites made here in Guildford, and elsewhere in places like Stevenage and Portsmouth [by Airbus].

"We can take pride in the fact that we still make very smart bits of kit."

The EC is investing billions in its "rival" to America's Global Positioning System (GPS), believing it will bring significant returns to member-state economies in the form of new businesses that can exploit precise timing and location data delivered from orbit.

Galileo's next-generation technologies are designed to provide users with quicker, more reliable fixes, enabling them to locate their positions with an error of one metre, compared with the current GPS error of several metres.

GPS already underpins a great swathe of activity with many uses that are unseen and unsung, such as the timing signal's widespread role in synchronising telecommunications systems and major financial transactions.

Ahead of Galileo's service start later this year, mobile phone and other device manufacturers have been incorporating chips that can process the signals.

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