The EU wants to reduce reliance on American navigation technology
The European Union on Wednesday launched the first test satellite aimed at reducing Europe's reliance on American navigation technology, as part of a multi-billion euro program that analysts say marks an important waypoint in the evolution of a multi-polar world.
The launch of the 600 kg, British-built satellite on a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur cosmodrome will mark the start of the European Commission and the European Space Agency's most ambitious technical and scientific venture, organisers said.
In fact, there are claims that Galileo's rubidium-based atomic clocks, the heart of the system, are ten times more precise as the ones in the American GPS system, and will give positions accurately to within one meter (one yard) or less.
It is also stated that Galileo will give a faster fix, and will penetrate inside buildings, into city centers, under trees; all the places where GPS is currently unreliable.
The truth is that Galileo will not be technologically superior for very long, and it is a lot more expensive than just sticking with GPS.
Another launch will follow early in 2006, and once the testing is complete the launches of operational satellites will come every couple of months until all 30 of them are in orbit by the end of 2010.
Many users will use the free GPS system for most purposes before the U.S. upgrade, and only switch to the fee-based Galileo system when greater accuracy is required.
The project, dubbed Galileo, will work in tandem with the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) and a similar Russian network. The European Union has long been wary of relying solely on the U.S. system because it is under military control and can be cut off without warning.
In 2004, President George W. Bush said the GPS satellites could be disabled during national crises to keep terrorists from using the technology.
Once Galileo is operational, the U.S. will lose a valuable diplomatic lever that it has quietly enjoyed for the past three decades, so the Bush administration mounted a major diplomatic campaign in 2004 to persuade the EU to drop the project.
It was particularly insistent that Galileo's positioning data not be made available to China, which it sees as its emerging strategic rival.
Europeans are hoping Galileo will ease "an uncomfortableness with a technology on which we are all dependent but that the U.S. could theoretically switch off at any time," said Timothy Garden, a spokesman on defense issues for the Liberal Democrat party in the British House of Lords.
GPS was originally built with US taxpayers' money as an entirely military system. Its main purpose, early on, was to provide accurate positioning data to American nuclear delivery vehicles, but US authorities quickly realized that it was also a superb tool for enhancing the country's diplomatic clout abroad and the military services' public image at home.
They let private companies produce receivers that enabled civilians to use the satellite data (with the accuracy deliberately degraded so it was less useful to other military forces), and transformed the world's navigation industry.
With a host of applications in areas; such as, fisheries, agriculture, oil prospecting, building, and telecommunications; Galileo is expected to create more than 140,000 jobs in Europe and to generate €200 billion in services per year by 2013.
After testing, more launches are planned
The device, named "Giove A", launched on a Soyuz rocket from a site in Kazakhstan, is equipped with two atomic clocks that will generate test signals during a two-year trial.
Giove-A (Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element) will circle the planet at an orbit of 23,222 km (14,430 miles). A second satellite, Giove-B, built by the European consortium Galileo Industries, is being tested and will be launched early in 2006.
The Paris-based European Space Agency plans to launch a second test satellite, "Giove B", before sending a total of 30 satellites into orbit to run the system, which could begin commercial operations as soon as 2008.
The Galileo Navigation System (GNS) is supposed to be primarily for international civilian use.
Galileo's developers say it is designed for civilian rather than military use. It will offer more precise data than the U.S. system, allowing users to navigate to the nearest meter (3.3 feet), rather than the nearest five meters (16.5 feet), now the standard in GPS technology. That could improve the data used to land airplanes, locate ships, and direct motorists.
Galileo is designed to be inter-operable with the two other global navigation systems, America's GPS and Russia's Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS).
Given the EU's perception that Galileo is a key element in assuring its own long-term strategic independence, the American diplomatic offensive was bound to fail.
So the U.S. has now decided to make the best of the situation, and agreed to make the two sat-nav systems compatible and "interoperable". In other words, future receivers will be able to get a fix using satellites from both systems.
Consumers are expected to be able to buy Galileo receivers in 2008, and they will be able to switch back and forth between GPS and Galileo, similar to how people can change between cellphone networks now. The Galileo system should be fully functional by 2010.
Countries like China and Israel are contributing to the financing to Galileo, and with European governments aiming to develop technology that is more accurate and reliable than the current U.S. system, analysts said the project was emblematic of how the development of strategic technologies could be shared among nations.
China is expected to supply some of the hardware to help construct and launch the 30 satellites that will make up Galileo.
The U.S. has concerns that the Europeans have included the Chinese in some aspects of the work. Western officials acknowledge privately that China's interest is fueled by its desire to develop defense capabilities in space, but insist that tight security is observed over all sensitive aspects of the project.
The major drawback of the free and universally available U.S. GPS system is that it comes with no guarantees.
At any time the United States government can choose to degrade the positioning data available to civil users, or even to switch the system off.
It is unlikely to do such a thing except in a grave emergency, but remote contingencies are what strategic planning is all about. If, for example, there were to be a Chinese-US military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait ten years from now, and the US decided to switch the publicly available GPS service off in case Chinese cruise missiles used it, air traffic systems all over Asia would collapse.
Israel already has signed an agreement to access the system and Brazil, South Korea, Canada, and Australia also have expressed interest.
Skepticism among consumers about the intrusiveness of new technologies is one of several challenges for Galileo. Using the technology for systems that track drivers to make sure they paid their road tolls could be undermined by "broader public concerns about Big Brother".
Does anyone really know what Galileo will cost?
The primary contractors on the 3.8 billion euro, or $4.5 billion, project are European aerospace giant EADS, Thales and Alcatel of France, Inmarsat of Britain, the Italian contractor Finmeccanica, and the Spanish companies AENA and Hispasat.
Can anyone really depend on any government's claims of costs for any project it starts?
In all, there are claims that the deployment will cost €3.8 billion and the launch phase, which will require €2.2 billion, should be complete by 2010. One third of that will be funded by European tax-payers and the rest from private sources. It is yet to be seen if the estimated cost will not be exceeded.
There are no reliable estimates of the final cost of getting the Galileo system up and running: the working figure is 3.4 to 3.8 billion euros ($4 billion plus), but it could end up being much more. The projected revenues are even less clear, since they assume that Galileo's increased accuracy will lure large numbers of users away from the American GPS system, which is freely available to anyone; but the forthcoming upgrade of the U.S. GPS network should make it even more accurate than Galileo within the next ten years.
Of the Galileo satellite launch, Eduardo Falcon, Topcon senior vice president of product development, said, "When these three satellite systems are fully operational, users of G3 products will have access to more than 80 positioning satellites.
Access to this wide range of satellites will make expanded applications, unprecedented performance, and unparalleled precision possible."
To process multiple signals from multiple satellite systems, Topcon engineered the new Paradigm-G3 chip at its Moscow Technology Center. The new chip will be the basis for a new generation of Topcon GPS+ products and will first appear in the new Net-G3 reference receiver, providing network hardware ready to support all satellite signals for the highest possible service to all networks users into the future.
Galileo will more than double current GPS coverage, according to press reports, providing worldwide satellite navigation for construction and optical surveying projects and for other uses including the use by motorists, sailors, and mapmakers.
In particular, Galileo was designed to improve satellite coverage in high-latitude areas such as northern Europe and Canada.