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Galileo 'can deploy 24 satellites with existing funding'

Euro sat nav can go worldwide if nothing goes wrong

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The European Commission has announced a raft of contracts for the Galileo sat nav programme, and says that cost problems have been reined in to such a degree that the system will come close to planned operational performance without needing to request extra funding from European politicians.

It had been expected that the agreed €4.8bn of EU funds would see only 18 satellites deployed, due to delays and cost overruns in the project so far. For global coverage a minimum of 24 are required, and for good service 30 is better. Plans call for Galileo to deploy 30 operational satellites, including three on-orbit spares.

But now European Commission spokesmen, alongside announcements of contracts covering ground control stations, have told media including Reuters that costs have been reduced and project chiefs now expect to put 24 satellites into space without requiring any further funds. Extra cash would have required political approval, potentially a tortuous process with various EU member states including the UK opposed to spending any more on Galileo.

Galileo has had a troubled gestation. It was originally supposed to be built using commercial funding which was to be recouped by offering various paid services. However, this didn't prove attractive enough commercially, and not enough investment was forthcoming. Public funds were eventually obtained by the EC through the mechanism of reallocating unspent farm subsidies - these would normally have returned mainly to the national treasuries of the EU's principal paymasters, the UK, Netherlands and Germany.

Negotiations over such things as manufacturing contracts and the locations of ground stations were protracted but eventually the project got under way. It remains behind schedule: the first two operational satellites (dubbed "In Orbit Validation" spacecraft, but they should be useable by ground receivers) ought to have been in space already, but they are expected to lift off in October. For now, only test craft whose main purpose is to hold onto frequency slots are actually flying.

The US GPS constellation currently has 31 spacecraft in orbit and is providing a good service to the vast majority of sat-nav users worldwide. Russia is also rebuilding its GLONASS constellation, a casualty of the post Cold War era, and China has stated aspirations to a nav-and-timing constellation as well.

Quite apart from their myriad civil uses, nav sats are vital to modern military forces. The primary reason for the creation of GPS was to boost the accuracy of US nuclear warheads: without GPS their inertial and star-sight guidance is not accurate enough to let them knock out such targets as hardened missile silos (though they are still quite capable of destroying a city). Nowadays, GPS guidance is found in all kinds of conventional weapons systems as well, and is also used by ships, tanks, planes and even individual soldiers.

France in particular has long chafed at being reliant on US-controlled satellites for such purposes, and will welcome the appearance of the new encrypted government-users-only "public regulated navigation" function of Galileo, which though civilian-run will not be subject to US control.

Civilian sat nav users may also be happy to see Galileo arrive, as it has been set up to work well alongside GPS. Combo receivers, set to appear as Galileo stands up, will be able to draw on a combined fleet 50+ strong, potentially offering excellent coverage and accuracy even in difficult locations. ®

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