The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Galileo satellites have been having a bad time for the past 17 years. Now, the 10 billion euro project has suffered what might be its strangest setback yet: Nine clocks across the 18 Galileo satellites in orbit have suddenly stopped working. For a fleet that was supposed to create an independent European GPS system, the satellites really can’t seem to get their act together.
Image credit: ESA
According to the BBC, each Galileo satellite is equipped with four clocks — two powered by rubidium, and two by hydrogen masers — in order to help the satellite function in case one clock fails. But with this recent mishap, one satellite is operating on just two clocks, which could spell trouble, considering each satellite needs one clock to function.
Though the issue hasn’t forced any satellites to shut down, the ESA might delay the launch of its next batch of satellites until it can identify the cause. This wouldn’t be a great look for the ESA — at this point, the list of Galileo gaffes is already quite long. In August 2014, two satellites were launched into the wrong orbits, which delayed future launches. Even before that, launches had been delayed for over a year due to “technical difficulties”.
The ESA hasn’t released any information about what could have caused the problem, but it’s possible they don’t know yet. We reached out to the ESA but had not received a response at time of writing.
In the meantime, ESA director general Jan Woerne gave journalists in Paris this mildly confusing explanation:
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.
Better luck next time, little guys.