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Galileo: Europe's Own Constellation

For years, the Galileo satellite navigation system was seen as a barrier to transatlantic relations. But the European Union's most-ambitious space project is now seen as a competitor and complement to GPS.

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A model of the Galileo satellite navigation system

After its completion around 2009, Europe's Galileo navigation system will guide trucks carrying goods across European highways, it will help land planes at Europe's crowded airports, it will assist ships docking in its busy ports, and it will aid the blind in finding their way through city streets. But to many Europeans, the most important thing about Galileo is that it will wean the EU of its technological dependence on the American global positioning system (GPS). Europeans have long complained that GPS is unreliable for critical use because, as a military system, it can and has been scrambled during times of crisis.

"It's always better to be the master of your future," Jean Claude Gayssot, the former Transport Minister of France said when the EU approved the project in 2002. "If you are not the owner of your own system, how can you be sure that every decision is going to be taken in your interest?"

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Dominique Detain of the European Space Agency, which has been responsible for the initial development and testing of Galileo, says Europe needs its own navigation system because GPS isn't reliable enough. "You're never sure of the data or the signal you get from GPS," he told DW-WORLD. "You can't be certain of the continuity of the signal and that you will be made aware of a disruption to the signal. And that's not because it's not possible, but because the military does not want to provide such information."

That lack of reliability has made GPS unfeasible for applications where a slight inaccuracy could result in deaths, like air traffic control. "With Galileo, we will provide all of the information and we will assure that it is valid," he said. European critics of GPS often point out that the Pentagon scrambled its signal at times during the war in Kosovo, disrupting service to civilian users.

A global service industry

GPS mit Galileo Sat

An artist's impression of a Galileo satellite

Europe's biggest infrastructure project ever, Galileo is currently being planned by the European Space Agency and the firm Galileo Industries, a Germany-based consortium that includes European space industry giants like EADS, Alcatel and Alenia Spazio. By the time operations of the 30-satellite constellation begins, the EU will have invested approximately €3.4 billion on the ambitious project.

But the payoff could be even greater. European Commissioner for Transportation Loyola de Palacio has estimated Galileo will create a global services industry with more than 150,000 new jobs and €10 billion in annual revenues gained from premium versions of the Galileo signal. The EU will also derive revenues from a licensing fee paid by manufacturers of Galileo receivers. Galileo will provide Europe's first competition to the global positioning system of satellites launched by the US in 1973 and operated by the Pentagon.

Cutting a deal with Washington

For a number of years, Galileo served as a serious thorn in the side of transatlantic relations. Officials in Washington feared the spectrum used by Galileo could interfere with the GPS signal used by the military, making it difficult for the Americans to scramble the signal in times of crisis. Others in the US argued that satellite navigation systems should be available for free, like GPS, and there was no need for a commercial version. But Washington and Brussels reached a deal in June that will make the two systems compatible and interoperable while at the same time maintaining autonomy over each system, effectively eliminating any remaining conflict over the project.

Loyola de Palacio zu GPS

EU Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio

"With this agreement, we are going to set the rules of the game for the GPS and Galileo for the coming decades, both systems being fully interoperable, and they will set the world standards in the market through the use of the same open signal," European Commissioner for Transportation Loyola de Palacio (photo) of Spain said in June. "This will allow all users to use in a complementary way both systems with the same receiver." She said the cooperation would also benefit the European and American space industries, which are already highly interwoven.

The Bush administration also extended its support for the deal. "The agreement manages to balance the competition that is inherent in the commercial dimension of satellite navigational technology with the cooperation necessary for the security dimension," Secretary of State Colin Powell said. The diplomat said the existence of redundant systems would also "ensure the safety and availability of satellite navigation technology for transportation and recreational users worldwide."

Critics still lurking

Still, some in Washington are adamantly opposed to Galileo, which they see as a threat to US space dominance. Speaking at a recent space conference, Republican Congressman Dave Weldon encouraged the US to expedite its own plans for a next-generation GPS in order to beat the Europeans at Galileo. "I am concerned that while we fail to deploy GPS-3, the European/Chinese efforts for Galileo will be encouraged and they will field a competing system," he said. "GPS is the world standard and provides us a measure of space control and dominance unmatched. To cede this could be tragic."

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Washington has eyed China's space ambitions suspiciously. Its growing cooperation with Europe is also raising eyebrows.

In other words: the fears in the US weren't just that there would be technical overlap with the GPS signal -- old fashion competition also plays a role. "There was concern Europe was going to build a system that effectively turned GPS into Betamax," Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, explained in an interview with DW-WORLD. She added that the participation of the Chinese, who are investing in Galileo, also sparked discomfort in Washington.

"The US and China view space as a zero some," she explained, "Any gain by one is a loss for the other. The fact that Europe is working with China on Galileo makes the perception of it even more threatening to the United States."

Coming to a receiver near you

The first Galileo test satellites are expected to be launched in Autumn 2005, with remaining satellites being launched by 2009. European space industry giants are currently bidding for the right to the concession to operate Galileo after it has been launched.

ESA's Detain says Galileo should be seen not only as a service for Europe, but also one for the rest of the world. "The Galileo satellites won't stop working once they've passed the European borders. It will be a global system," he said. "GPS is a great system, but some information isn't provided -- the data gets upgraded and downgraded and you're never sure of it. Europe couldn't develop activities on a system where it is unsure of the source, so it's very important strategically to have an independent system. Now that Galileo and GPS are going to be interoperable, this will benefit everyone, even America."

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