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Navigating From Space

In the next few years Europeans will be tossing out their maps and navigating city streets with Galileo, the European Space Agency’s global navigation system, which has just received approval for launching.

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By 2008, the European satellite navigation system, Galileo, will crisscross the globe.

Five hundred years ago people looked to the stars for navigation, relying on their position in the hemisphere to guide them across the continents and oceans. Today sailors and pilots still look towards the sky, but the stars have been replaced by satellites.

Orbiting at a distance of some 23,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, several dozen satellites, many sent up in the late 1950s and 1960s by the United States and the Soviet Union for military use, provide ships and planes with a global navigation system. In the last 10 years, the number of satellites used for commercial purposes has increased rapidly, but the United States still dominates the field, and the Pentagon controls access.

This will change in the next five years now that the European Space Agency (ESA) has given the green light for the development of Europe’s first global navigation system, Galileo. Designed as a competitor to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS), Galileo represents a concerted attempt by 15 European states to gain a foothold in the growing market for satellite navigation services.

The project, which was approved by European ministers on Monday, will be test-started in 2005 and carries a price tag of more than three billion euros, to be divided up between the ESA and the European Union.

Expensive technology benefits everyone

The investment is well worth it, Volker Liebig, director of Germany’s Aerospace Center in Bonn, told DW-WORLD, because everyone will profit from it. There will be a so-called ‘Safety of Life Service’ feature, for instance, which sends out a signal whenever a ship or plane is in distress. Plus, with 30 satellites in orbit and two control centers on the ground, Galileo reaches the most remote places in the African desert or the Brazilian rainforest, making navigation as easy as in downtown New York or Tokyo.

Starting in 2008, when Galileo is fully operational, people anywhere in the world will be able to rely on the ESA’s satellite technology for personal navigation. In northern Norway, for example, where there is no possibility of accessing global navigation systems because the current satellite network does not cover the region, a combination of Galileo and special mobile phones will enable people to determine their exact position, down to the very meter, free of charge.

Commercial channels, on the other hand, will charge a fee for their use. "What one pays for is a particular service such as management of an entire shipping fleet or the coordination of trucks, where more than just the pure positioning signal is involved," says Liebig. That means a transport company, for instance, will be able to keep track of where each one of its trucks is located, while the truck drivers themselves rely on Galileo to help them navigate through foreign cities.

Galileo creates employment opportunities

Global navigation is rapidly becoming a lucrative market. The European states participating in the Galileo project are expecting big returns on their investment. Supporters of the project predict that it will lead to the creation of some 140,000 jobs in the high-tech sector and generate €74 billion in earnings over the next 20 years. Germany, as Galileo’s largest financial investor hopes to profit the most from the system, and was a strong advocate in lobbying for ESA approval.

Manfred Stolpe, Germany’s transportation minister applauded the ESA decision saying that satellite navigation is of "great importance to the country’s economy and transportation policy," and that the Galileo system presents "a big chance for German and European industry."

Competition for U.S. System

The U.S. government, however, is less than enthusiastic about Europe developing its own navigation satellite system. Last year the U.S. State Department announced that the American GPS system should be adopted as the worldwide standard, and that there was no compelling reason for Galileo.

In the past the U.S. has also voiced concern that Galileo could become a security threat because it offers open access to its positioning system. The American GPS system, which depends on military satellites under the control of the U.S. Department of Defense, can be downgraded or even switched off if the government believes it is being manipulated by an enemy state or a terrorist group. This was the case during the war in Kosovo when the U.S. restricted European use of the GPS.

Such action has been sharply criticized by the Europeans and is one of the reasons Galileo was conceived. "There are those in America who are not in favor of Europe becoming independent in the field of satellite navigation," Liebig says, "but I believe one is much more respected as a partner, when one develops his own capabilities."

The EU Commission seems to agree, and as one speaker put it, Galileo is absolutely necessary because "we don’t like monopolies."

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  • Date 28.05.2003
  • Author Kristin Zeier
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/3grW
  • Date 28.05.2003
  • Author Kristin Zeier
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/3grW