The Galileo Project
Why Europe wants its own satellite navigation program.
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, April 2013
(Page 2 of 5)
Once Galileo passes its orbital testing, the Europeans promise to go into overdrive, using an Ariane 5 on a series of launches to deploy four satellites at a time. By 2015, the schedule calls for 18 spacecraft. Working with GPS, that array will noticeably improve service for users on Earth, especially those hemmed in by tall buildings or navigating parts of the planet where GPS coverage is minimal, such as those close to the poles.
After Galileo goes live, satellite navigation services around the world will have an effective backup system in case the GPS breaks down or is hacked. And Europe, enthusiasts say, will finally control its own communications destiny, free at last of the unlikely but catastrophic threat that the U.S. Air Force might restrict GPS coverage in times of conflict. (Since it went fully operational in 1996, GPS has never been turned off.) That is a danger the EU can ill afford, with six percent of its gross domestic product already dependent on celestial navigation, says Antonio Tajani, the Union’s industry commissioner and current point man for Galileo. “The EU needs to ensure the continuity of services to its electricity grids, telecommunications networks, and stock exchanges,” the Italian-born Eurocrat says. “The proverbial ‘man in the street’ is likely not to be aware of this other side of satellite navigation, at least until things start going wrong.”
Through the years, Galileo, like most pan-European crusades, has been pushed along primarily by the continent’s core countries: France, Italy, and, with a bit more ambivalence, Germany. Despite the German executive’s dig at the French, Germany now seems to be winning the project’s best spoils. OHB-System itself, based in Bremen, will end up building most of the satellites, while ground operator Spaceopal is headquartered near Munich. The newer EU members, in Eastern Europe, have also been handed a stake in Galileo: Prague is the new home of the General Supervisory Authority, which will oversee the program for the EC as it gets bigger and more complex.
Britain, Europe’s perpetual sourpuss, is going along with EU integration but continues to grumble and criticize. Yet the first champion of Galileo, Neil Kinnock, was a British politician. A failed Labour candidate for prime minister in both 1987 and 1992, Kinnock moved to Brussels to become EC transport commissioner in 1995. There, he pushed the idea that the Union should not depend on America for future satellite-guided transportation. Kinnock unveiled the plans for Galileo in February 1999, with what turned out to be rose-tinted expectations on timing and cost. “The investment needed, less than 3 billion euros, is not unbearable since it would be spread between 15 member states over 10 years,” he said at the time. “The returns would be immense.”
But it was Kinnock’s successor as transport commissioner, Loyola de Palacio of Spain, and ESA director Antonio Rodota of Italy who in 2000 cut the ribbon on a Galileo program office. That year, a blue-ribbon commission chaired by Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister, offered a clunkily phrased yet determined declaration of independence for European space exploration: “The driver of European space policy is to make Europe not dependent on non-European space infrastructure for any strategic and commercial applications.”
Other supporters touted the satellite network’s potential to spur job creation and technology spinoffs. The EU’s Directorate-General for Transport and Industry estimates that by 2025, 146,000 jobs will be created just in equipment sales—80,000 more than would be created by continuing to rely on GPS. Even Britain’s Department for Transport expects Galileo will bring in €74 billion in “economic and social benefits” over 20 years EU-wide.
In that spirit, Rodota got his ESA scientists busy sketching plans for the Galileo system. Planned on a similar scale to GPS, the network will have 24 satellites (the minimal number for global coverage) with six more as backups.