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Europe steps closer to 'independence' from GPS

Zulfikar Abbany
May 25, 2016

Europe's Galileo satellite navigation system is about halfway there. With satellites 13 and 14 now in orbit, it's another "step towards European independence" from America's GPS.

Galileo satellite in space
Image: OHB

The European Space Agency (ESA) is celebrating the launch of two new Galileo satellites - 13 and 14 - that were lifted into space on a Soyuz rocket from its spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

In less than four hours of flight, the satellites entered orbit at close to 23,522 kilometers altitude.

ESA says the satellites will be brought into their "final working orbit" in the coming days. They will then undergo a testing phase before they join satellites one through 12 in what's called the "working constellation."

"This marks a further step towards European independence in satellite navigation," says Stephane Israel, who heads the launch firm, Arianespace.

A civil rival to GPS

Galileo is described as a "civil" global satellite navigation system to set it apart from America's Global Positioning System, which was developed by the US Defense Department.

The European system aims to offer more precise positioning than GPS. For one, it will use younger technology than GPS to achieve precision in the range of centimeters rather than meters.

Galileo Satellit wird auf die Rakete montiert
A Galileo satellite is loaded onto a rocket before launchImage: ESA-CNES-ARIANESPACE/Optique Vidéo du CSG/P. Baudon

At its best - that's in military use - GPS offers precision of between 3 and 6 meters. For civilian or commercial use, GPS precision lies in the region of 15 meters. And the problem, say the Europeans, is that the US refuses to open up the best of its system for civilian use.

Still, GPS is not as good as Galileo hopes to be. Europe is targeting its navigation system at commercial users to enable aeroplanes to fly on autopilot for longer periods, to guide drivers through almost any terrain, and to speed up shipping routes.

But before it can do any of that, Europe has to launch at least another 10 functioning satellites. It will need 24 satellites in the working constellation before Galileo is operational. The constellation may include up to 30 satellites.

Next launch on Ariane 5

Galileo is slowly getting back on track after a major setback in 2014 saw two satellites launched into the wrong orbit.

The launch of satellites five and six caused a delay of more than a year due to "technical difficulties." In total, the project is about 12 years behind schedule.

But Galileo scientists say they are now confident about the future. Javier Benedicto, Galileo Project Manager at ESA, says they had a "good return of experience" with the system so far.

Positioning has improved steadily since the first four satellites formed the basic constellation - the "In-Orbit Validation (IOV) satellites - in 2011 and 2012.

By the end of 2016, ESA plans to have 18 satellites in orbit. The next launch will feature four orbiters on a single rocket, Europe's own Ariane 5 ES launcher.

Russia and China also have global positioning systems - GLONASS and the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, respectively - with varying degrees of success.