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Foundations laid for Galileo ground station

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Construction of the Italian ground control station for planned European sat nav constellation Galileo is underway, despite the controversy surrounding the project.

The Italian station will be located in the central district of Fucino, and will work alongside a German facility to be built in Munich.

Galileo has until lately been mired in a dispute over funding, with a planned private sector contribution to the construction phase withheld. Industry could not see a way to directly generate revenue from Galileo.

However, nine days ago European officials in Brussels proposed a plan to fund the project from public coffers, largely by diverting it from "unspent" farm subsidy budgets. The Eurocrats' plan still has to be approved at the political level, but this will involve no great pain as the funds are already assigned to the EU by national governments.

It now appears that Italian national aerospace firm Finmeccanica is confident Galileo will now move forward. The Fucino ground station is being built by Telespazio, a joint venture two-thirds of which is Finmeccanica's. The other partner is France's Thales.

"The big problem at the beginning was to find funds, but now the European Commission (EC) has decided to take care of the financing," Finmeccanica CEO Pier Francesco Guarguaglini said.

"If we proceed very quickly it will be worth it," he told reporters at the Fucino foundation-laying ceremony yesterday. "Otherwise, we will waste our money and our time."

Guarguaglini was reportedly unconcerned regarding the commercial viability of Galileo, which could struggle to raise revenue as long as the civil signal of the US military GPS constellation remains available for free. Under the EC draft plan, commercial partners, including Finmeccanica, would still pay the running costs of the system after it is built with taxpayer cash.

"The precision of this system is much better than GPS," he said. "At the end, we will have 30 satellites and 30 means more precision."

In fact, at present GPS has 31 satellites, but the US Air Force is only required to keep 24 operational. Budget forecasts suggest the GPS constellation could thin out significantly as Galileo becomes operational, though user bodies have urged the US government to maintain a minimum of 30 sats. New Block III GPS platforms soon to come online will offer capability comparable to that of Galileo.

In the end, of course, Guarguaglini and his fellow members of the European industrial consortium don't need to be too worried. European taxpayers will pay them handsomely to build Galileo, and if they can't make a profit running it afterwards nobody can force them to keep on taking a loss. And indeed, it seems unlikely that the governments of Europe would simply abandon their multi-billion hardware investment should such a situation occur.

Reuters' report is here. ®

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