Galileo - a new frontier in space for Europe
by Francesco Guarascio
With the Galileo launches last Friday, Europe has made clear its intention to end US dominance of the GPS market and boost military capabilities
Just as it did for Phoenicians or Vikings centuries ago, the sky is still guiding modern navigation. But today's travellers no longer look to the stars, but to high-tech satellites capable of providing global positioning accurate to within an inch. With the launch of the first two Galileo satellites, Europe is entering a new space race. When a Russian Soyuz rocket with a payload of two Galileo satellites lifted off from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 7.30 am local time on Friday October 21 - cheering and tears of joy greeted what appeared to be an historic moment. The failed launch of the previous day, due to technical problems, was soon forgotten.
Nearly four hours after the launch, what remained of the Soyuz rocket expelled its payload at an altitude of more than 23,000 kilometres - leaving Thijs and Natalia free to orbit the earth. The first two satellites of a fleet, which is eventually expected to number 30, carry the names of two European children from Belgium and Bulgaria. The next to be launched will be named after other European countries in alphabetical order. "We opened today a new chapter in our history," said an emotional Jean-Yves Le Gall, chief executive of Arianespace - the company which oversaw the launches –following blast-off. The launch, which projects Europe into a new era, came just as political leaders were struggling to find a definitive solution to the economic and financial crises - which threaten the very existence of the supranational project.
"It's an extraordinary event, which shows how Europe can achieve important results even in a period of crisis," claimed European Commissioner for Industry Antonio Tajani. Keen to keep the momentum created by the launch going, he quickly announced plans to sign contracts for the construction of up to eight new satellites - following on from the 14 contracts that had previously been signed. Galileo explicitly wants to challenge United States domination over satellite navigation systems. The American Global Positioning System has so far been the unchallenged leader for a product known to the general public for providing smart guidance to drivers worldwide. But it was primarily designed for military purposes. In fact, GPS instructs US troops in war theatres as distant as Iraq or Afghanistan.
The European version of GPS is officially a civil programme, but its military implications are clear. "If it was not for its military potential, I doubt that member states would have agreed to fund the programme on their own," admitted Alessandro Giordani, diplomatic adviser to the Italian government. In a briefing note, the European Commission has acknowledged that "although Galileo is a civil programme, nothing at the technical level prevents the services provided by the system to be used in missions related to the safety of member states". An official in Brussels went further, revealing that the military could well block the civil use of Galileo – if it needed to.
And beyond defence interests, Galileo offers so many services and drives so much technological development that Europe has realised it cannot do without it. That is why, even in tough economic times, the commission has proposed to fund the programme exclusively with European Union money to the extent of €7bln for the period between 2014 and 2020. Member states seem ready to accept it because the top EU funders - Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom - are heavily involved in space programmes. The union's eagerness to challenge the US near-monopoly in satellite navigation systems has proved strong enough to push European countries into an unprecedented and unusual partnership with the Russian bear. Suspicions and prejudices regarding Moscow's energy policy fade away when it comes to space. It does not come as a surprise, then, that the first two Galileo satellites were sent into orbit using the legendary Russian Soyuz rocket - by far, the most used vehicle for space ventures in history - and launch from former Soviet Union territory.
Almost 400 Russian engineers and technicians have been working for months in French Guiana to prepare for the launch, which marks the beginning of far-reaching cooperation. Russians will use the European space-port to carry out launches of their own satellites, profiting from the Kourou base near the equator. It is questionable how long the EU-Russia space partnership will last, but little doubt remains over Europe's ambitions to challenge its US counterpart. The aim seems to be removing US dominance and making GPS the "American Galileo", in the words of French Research Minister Laurent Wauquiez.