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Galileo sat-nav contracts, startup dates announced

French nukes to get precision guidance from 2014

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The European Commission has announced contracts for the procurement of the first 14 operational Galileo navigation-and-timing satellites.

The Galileo service is now expected to begin offering some service as of "early 2014". However the date for full, reliable global coverage - which would require a minimum of 24 operating spacecraft - has yet to be confirmed.

The Galileo constellation, a long-running aspiration of various European governments including the EU in Brussels, was originally supposed to be a public-private partnership. It is still intended to support itself as much as possible by commercial revenues, but private capital to cover building costs failed to materialise due to doubts on revenue, and in the event taxpayers are now to foot the entire construction bill.

Thus far the taxpayers doing the most paying will be British, Dutch and German ones. The shortfall caused by evaporating private investment was made up from unspent farm subsidies which would otherwise mostly have been returned to the treasuries of the UK, Netherlands and Germany, the EU's principal paymasters.

Exactly what the total bill will be remains to be seen. However the contracts announced today are as follows:

  • OHB System AG of Germany gets €566m for the first 14 operational satellites. Subsequent satellite orders will go either to OHB or to pan-Euro space goliath EADS-Astrium, owner of Brit sat firm SSTL, under a "double-sourcing" agreement already signed.
  • €397m to Arianespace for launching of the first ten satellites, in pairs aboard Soyuz rockets provided from Russia. The first launch is set for October 2012.
  • ThalesAleniaSpace gets a work order covering system support services from 2010 to 2014 for €85m.

Galileo is intended to be a step forward on the main sat-nav tech in use today, the Global Positioning System (GPS) operated by the US Defense Department. GPS nowadays offers its full capability to civilian users as well as military, generally achieving accuracy of a few metres. However America reserves the right to cut off the unencrypted, civilian GPS service in specific areas at its own discretion.

Galileo is intended to offer a free, unencrypted public service like GPS, but with initially superior accuracy of 1 metre. GPS is expected to match this with the introduction of "Block III" satellites, which will start launching from 2014 and gradually replace the current fleet.

Galileo, like GPS, will also operate an encrypted government-only service intended to keep operating globally even in time of war or other crisis - but called "public regulated navigation" rather than "military". It's to be expected that French nuclear-missile forces will be among the government agencies keen to use this*.

There will also be an encrypted, highly accurate, "guaranteed" pay-Galileo service for commercial clients, and a free "safety of life navigation" unencrypted one with built-in error-warning tech, similarly "guaranteed" and "accurate". It isn't very clear why one would pay for the commercial service rather than simply using the safety-nav one.

There will also be a dedicated search-and-rescue service that may allow responses to be sent to emergency beacons confirming that help is on the way.

At the moment, the only Galileo satellites actually put into orbit have been "in-orbit validation" (IOV) craft designed to test the technology and hold onto the service's frequency slots. The European Commission says that four more of these will go up in 2010/11.

The EC also says that with today's deals inked it now expects the basic Open Service, the Public Regulated Service and the Search And Rescue Service to go live as of "early 2014", though there will not be enough satellites up at that point to cover the whole world at all times. Brussels spokesmen add that "the Safety-of-Life Service and the Commercial Service will be tested as of 2014 and will be provided as Galileo reaches full operational capability with a constellation of 30 satellites".

GPS users have enjoyed excellent coverage in recent years with 31 satellites in space at the moment, as compared to the 24 required to cover the whole planet. However this number is set to drop due to funding shortfalls and tech delays in coming years.

Ordinary users needn't fret, however, as Galileo and GPS have been designed so that a single receiver can use both at once. Though neither fleet may offer many birds visible in the sky at a given place and time during the new decade, both together should offer solid coverage.

Russia for its part is building up its GLONASS constellation, once a rival to GPS but fallen into disrepair in the post-Soviet era. China has stated ambitions towards a satnav service, too. ®

Bootnote

*An intercontinental nuclear missile warhead forced to rely on its own inertial navigation and star sights is noticeably less accurate than one which can call on a modern sat-nav service. Such a warhead can still hit close enough to its target coordinates to eliminate a city, but not a hardened target like an underground bunker or missile silo. This was the primary reason for the construction of GPS.

Blighty, procuring its missiles from America rather than making its own like France, has so far been happy enough to rely on GPS-military should it want to make a precise counter-force ICBM strike rather than simply unleashing armageddon on an enemy nation. France has chafed rather more at not having a satnav option free of US involvement. However British missiles too could easily be set up to use Galileo "public regulated" instead of, or together with, GPS.

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