The Galileo Project

Why Europe wants its own satellite navigation program.

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

Galileo’s main difference from GPS is an orbital altitude 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) higher, which in turn points the satellites at a sharper angle back toward Earth: 56 degrees instead of 52. This will yield two benefits, project director Marco Falcone says: better coverage in “urban canyons,” where surrounding buildings can interfere with the GPS signal, and in the polar regions that European and other companies will increasingly be tapping for oil and other resources.

Galileo also aims to improve on GPS with a new kind of onboard clock powered by hydrogen laser technology. Very reliable clocks are essential: A deviation of one nanosecond—one-billionth of a second—per day translates to a 30-centimeter (12-inch) mistake in location, Falcone says. Galileo’s new clock will make the system more accurate than the current generation of GPS, which has a “worst case” margin of error of 7.8 meters (compared with Galileo’s four).

So far, the hydrogen laser clocks are working perfectly on the test satellites. That may be because funders threw politics aside to engage super-clockmaker Spectratime, whose Swiss facilities are outside the EU entirely. (Its parent company, Orolia, is French.) “The clocks were seen as quite high-risk, but they have turned out to be the least of the problems,” says Richard Peckham, a British executive with satellite maker Astrium.


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