The Galileo Project: Europe secures its place in space

The Galileo Project: Europe secures its place in space

By Kieran Fisher

For many years, the ability to quickly and easily establish your location on the earth has been dominated by US and Russian satellite observation systems. But now, Europe is on the verge of making its presence felt in space, with a revolutionary system of satellites that has been over ten years in the making: Galileo.

By 2015, The European Union (EU) and The European space agency (ESA) aim to bring the Galileo system fully online.  This will include the deployment of a constellation of 30 satellites, 27 of which will be operational satellites and three back-up satellites. Currently, the European user has to rely on the two dominant satellite systems; The Global Positioning System (GPS), controlled by the US military and the Global Navigation Satellite system (GLONASS), controlled by the Russian military. From sat-navs to Iphones, every time a person wishes to use a service that requires a signal from space to tell you where you are, you are utilising these systems. Now, while this is rarely going to affect the average user, and it’s hardly going to bother you that the US Dept of Defence and Russian Space Forces are essentially in command of your Sat-Nav, it has created unique issues that the EU hopes to address with Galileo.

The first of these is probably the most obvious and at the same time THE fundamental concern for the EU member states…How much use is it having the US and Russia in control of one of the most vital systems in modern transport and navigation? As stated before, the US and Russian militaries control the current satellite constellations, which means that at any time they are free to pull the plug and turn your lovely (and expensive) satellite navigation device into an inert lump of plastic and circuits. This of course is an unlikely event, as relations with the US are fairly stable and the same can be said for Russia (sushi-poisoning and attractive female spy-plots aside). However, nobody knows what the future holds and with Galileo, Europe aims to eliminate the possibility of outside interference with global navigation, as the system itself will ultimately be controlled by civilian organisations and not a foreign military. The ESA has stated that “European independence is the chief reason for taking this major step.” 

Galileo also addresses problems encountered as a result of the limits imposed on the current systems by the controlling organisations. Historically, the high-accuracy features of the GPS and GLONASS systems were limited to military use, with civilian systems operating on limited services. While again this may not affect the average Google Earth user, it has limited the capabilities of civilian organisations to utilise global navigation systems at their full abilities for commercial or other gain.

Galileo aims to make its high-end capabilities available to both government, military and (for a likely substantial fee) commercial organisations, meaning businesses such as airlines and shipping will be able to make more precise navigations. This in turn could reduce travel times and save money. It is worth noting that the GPS system is also increasing its precision capabilities, though Europe will still benefit from better mapping of higher latitudes (such as northern Europe) with Galileo.

Despite the clear intentions to use Galileo to retain EU independence, international cooperation has already been established. Initially, the US had major concerns with the EU’s plans, even going so far as to draft a strongly worded letter of complaint . In this, The US deputy secretary of defence highlighted the issue that Galileo may interfere with the US intentions to create a separate frequency band for its GPS military signals, allowing it to block civilian signals while still utilising its military capabilities (such as guiding missiles and marking bombing targets).

However, the EU reached an agreement with the US that will facilitate the cooperation of Galileo and the GPS system. The EU has also signed agreements with The Republic of Korea, Israel and Morocco concerning the international use of the new system. China had initially joined the Galileo project in 2003 and was to provide funding, but has instead decided to construct its own global navigation array, the “Beidou” system.

But what makes Galileo such a big deal in a world (or rather an atmosphere) that’s fast becoming chock-a-block with global navigation satellites? Galileo offers 5 main features to its users, and while not every one is revolutionary, each has aspects far superior to the current dominant navigation systems.

Open Access Navigation

This will provide the basic, free services that are available to all users for no charge, similar to the GPS and GLONASS systems. This service will utilise simple timing systems and will have an accuracy of positioning to about one meter, which when combined with GPS and GLONAAS will give the average user excellent accuracy, even in built-up high-rise urban areas where current systems can encounter problems.

Commercial Navigation

The encrypted system will differ from current navigation systems in that it will provide commercial users with the opportunity to utilise military-grade precision in their business operations that use global positioning. This service will be accurate to the centimetre, but usage will incur a fee from providers of the service.

Safety of Life Navigation

This service will also be open and un-encrypted but will be specifically for use by organisations, such as small to medium sized airports, which may not be able to afford the ground-based hardware and software to implement their own highly-accurate navigation systems. This will save airports a lot of money by reducing cancellations and delays due to bad conditions and increase their capacity to further increase profits, while also aiding to increase safety in air travel significantly.

Publically Regulated Navigation

The feature that caused most concern to the US, is this encrypted system that will primarily be used by governments and others, such as emergency services. This system will even be available for use in times of crisis. This, as the name suggests will be heavily controlled and regulated, is the cornerstone of the EU’s ability to maintain satellite navigation systems while allowing access to military grade precision navigation tools in the event of a crisis or if the US or Russia decide to cut civilian capabilities.

Search and Rescue

This service is one of the most innovative being offered by Galileo. With traditional global navigation systems, a user can use a GPS or GLOMASS device to send a distress signal to aid in their rescue. This is also capable with Galileo but new innovations will make it possible for a user to receive feedback from their recipients, indicating the status of their rescue operation. The importance of this feature cannot be underestimated, as of course one of the crucial factors in a search and rescue operation is the moral of the victim, which could dictate how long they survive waiting to be saved. Galileo will allow the authorities to assure those lost or in danger that they are in the process of being rescued, as well as instruct the individual in what to do to aid in their survival.

Clearly, these services will offer considerable benefits to the EU. However, the project has not been without criticism. Aside from the issues of compatibility with other satellite systems, the project has come at a considerable cost to the EU, with the initial estimate of 3.4 billion Euros rising to 5.4 billion. The project has suffering considerable setbacks due to lack of funding, which has caused serious delays in the completion of the project. A further concern has been that much of the funding has had to come from European public funds, after most of the project’s private investors pulled out of the project early, and money previously set aside for agricultural and other projects has had to be diverted to Galileo.


Tim Springer, Expert in GNSS for the ESOC and CTO of PosiTim, who specialise in high-accuracy GNSS services, feels that the system is well worth the cost incurred when weighed against its importance to the world:

“If Galileo will manage to take the position of the civilian and open system for all mass market applications and also for some ‘fundamental’ applications like reference frames, the 5 billion euro price tag is certainly not too much. If one considers Galileo as an ‘infrastructure’ just like roads and rails, the price becomes even more ‘normal’ considering that building infrastructure like highways costs about 20M€ per km. From that perspective 5B€ is equivalent to ~250km of high-way. But with Galileo, one gets a global piece of infrastructure that is usable 24/7 under all circumstances (except perhaps indoors).”

Despite these issues, the benefits of Galileo are clear. With the eventual launch and beginning of operations, Europe will have established itself as an authority in Earth observation, constructed a solid platform for scientific research (especially climate research, one of today’s most important issues) and sent a clear message of European independence to the world. But there are plenty of other runners in this new space-race and with the up-and-coming Chinese Beidou system, Japanese Quasi-Zenith Satellite System and Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System, there are sure to be plenty of competitors in what is estimated to become, by 2020, a £202 billion industry.

Relevant Links and Videos
Galileo - Global Navigation Satellite System (video)
European Space Agency
Agreement between US and EU