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Artist's conception of a Galileo validation satellite in orbit. If successful, Galileo will be the world's third global satellite navigation system. (ESA)

The Galileo Project

Why Europe wants its own satellite navigation program.

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What would it be like if the European Union collectively built a global satellite network, breaking the monopoly of the Global Positioning System, which unbeknown to most casual users is owned and operated by the U.S. military?

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There would be a lot of meetings, like the Security Accreditation Board confab every four weeks, where any one of 17 member nations can butt in and tinker with project development. There would be duplication of effort, like building two identical control centers in Germany and Italy, mostly so both countries feel they are getting their money’s worth out of the program.

There would be complex cross-jurisdiction responsibility for different bits of the scheme, shifting between the European Commission (EC) in Brussels, the European Space Agency in Paris, and the Global Navigation Satellite System Supervisory Authority, which last August set up shop in Prague. And there would be embarrassing press leaks: The CEO of German aerospace contractor OHB-System lost his job when in 2011 WikiLeaks revealed his statement to U.S. diplomats that the project was a “stupid idea that primarily serves French interests.”

So far, that’s what the birth of Europe’s global navigation satellite system, called Galileo, has been like. By 2017, the EU promises, Galileo will be a system of 30 satellites, orbiting at an altitude of 23,600 kilometers (14,664 miles) and capable of locating any object on Earth with an accuracy within four meters (13 feet).

Christian Langenbach is a participant in this historic enterprise, as managing director of Spaceopal, a new German-Italian consortium that won a contract two years ago to provide Galileo’s ground support. For the former business professor and computer programmer, the work is as much diplomatic as scientific. “It takes a lot of time to harmonize everything,” he explains. “This is the EU, where all member states have a right to raise their voice.”

Conceived in the early 2000s, Galileo was at first going to be a public-private partnership, like a giant toll road in the sky. Under the European Commission’s supervision, banks and contractors would finance most of the deployment, hoping to recoup the costs by later charging for services. That model fell apart in 2007 when it became clear that the Pentagon did not mind the rest of the world using GPS for free.

Europe’s banks and contractors recalculated their arithmetic accordingly, and bailed. The EC rescued Galileo with funding from the Union’s communal budget, only to discover the original cost estimates were wildly optimistic. By 2010, the project was nine years behind schedule and three times over budget, with a projected 20-year cost to beleaguered EU taxpayers of €22.2 billion ($28.6 billion), according to Open Europe, a British independent think tank. (The Rand Corporation has estimated research, development, and launch costs for GPS so far at $21.5 billion.) A 2008 inquiry by the British House of Commons’ Transport Committee found Galileo to be “a textbook example of how not to run large-scale infrastructure projects.”

Yet like the European Union itself—whose aggregate economy remains the world’s largest—Galileo plods on, and is starting to gain momentum. From its spaceport in French Guiana, the European Space Agency launched the system’s first two satellites in 2011 on a Russian Soyuz rocket, then two more last October on another Soyuz. That kicked off the “in-orbit validation” phase of the project. Four satellites is enough to obtain a position fix and determine that the system is basically functional, explains Marco Falcone, an Italian who oversees some 150 ESA technicians working on Galileo at the agency’s operations center near Leyden in the Netherlands.

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.”

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