After 17 years and at a cost of more than €10 billion, the EU's Galileo satellite navigation system is set to go live today, with a promise that it will deliver time and positioning data of unprecedented accuracy.
As the joint project of the European Commission and the European Space Agency, Galileo is, “The result of a concerted effort to design and build the most accurate satellite navigation system in the world,” said Industry Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska.
Galileo is able to locate positions to within one metre, compared to the current US-controlled Global Positioning System (GPS), which is accurate only to within several metres.
The Commission predicts a lucrative future for the new system and is calling on businesses to exploit its precision. Potential application include more accurate search and rescue missions and quicker-responding autonomous car features. Galileo could also improve the timing function that has now become ubiquitous in many fields, including in the synchronisation of global financial transactions, telecommunications and energy networks.
The Galileo launch puts Europe is at the forefront of space technology and will bring concrete benefits for people, companies and public authorities,” said Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President for the Energy Union. “With its precise satellite navigation services, it will underpin a range of services from transport, agriculture, health, electricity grids, financial transactions, rescue operations and many others.”
The new system is also of great strategic importance for Europe, which currently relies on two military-run rivals, America’s GPS and Russia's GLONASS. Like Europe, China is also looking to join the positioning race and its Compass system, previously named BeiDou, is already running on a limited scale but is expected to be offered to global customers from 2020.
In September, Spanish mobile phone maker BQ brought the first Galileo-compatible smartphone to market.
The market is expected to grow further. Already, 17 semiconductor companies – including Broadcom, Mediatek, STM, Intel, Qualcomm and uBlox – produce Galileo compatible products, up from only three manufacturers in 2010.
After the launch of four Galileo satellites on Tuesday, the fleet now consists of 18 Anglo-German built satellites. The full constellation foresees an additional 12 satellites being launched by 2020, when Galileo will be fully operational. Technical operations and procurement is managed by the European Space Agency.
The launch of the four satellites this week is also significant in being the first time that a European launcher, Ariane-5, was used for Galileo. This ensures Europe's autonomous access to space and will strengthen Europe's position as a key space player, Bieńkowska said.
The project, which took its name from the Italian astronomer who pinpointed the Earth's true position in the solar system, Galileo Galilei, was first approved with an initial budget of around €3 billion and planned to be operational by 2008.
But it has been plagued by several technical and budgetary setbacks, including the launch of two spacecraft into the wrong orbit in 2014.