Galileo: the countdown begins

08 Apr 2008 | News
After final political clearance Galileo can get set for lift off. Politicians have finally given the go-ahead after years of setbacks and delays. Now the horse trading over contracts begins.

Politicians have finally given the go-ahead to the €3.41 billion implementation phase of the Galileo satellite programme after years of setbacks and delays that threatened to de-rail the ambitious project.

The process of picking technology companies to build the satellites and ground stations for Galileo, Europe's answer to the US-controlled global positioning system (GPS) will begin in the next two months, the European Commission said on Tuesday.

This followed the approval of the Galileo Implementation Regulation by EU transport ministers on Monday. Apart from formally approving the expenditure of the €3.41 billion set aside for the project, the agreement also establishes the management structure for the system.

“Today, we sent a clear signal to Europe and the whole world that we are still firmly committed to provide all European citizens and enterprises with a high-quality satellite-navigation service by 2013,” said Radovan Žerjav, President of the Transport Council and the Slovenian Transport Minister.

He added, “We will create new jobs and Europe will claim its rightful place side by side with the technologically most developed world powers.”

Contracts worth billions

Contracts worth billions of euros are up for grabs by Europe’s aerospace and computer industries, to complete construction of the 30-strong constellation of satellites and their network of installations on the Earth by the 2013.

Front-runners include companies that got cold feet over the Galileo project in 2005, including EADS, France’s Thales and Alcatel-Lucent, Inmarsat of the UK , Italy’s Finmeccanica , Spain's AENA and Hispasat and Deutsche Telekom of Germany.

The companies pulled out in 2005 because they feared losing money on the project, which is the first global satellite navigation system designed specifically for civilian purposes. This forced the Commission to step in and plug the gap with money plundered from the Common Agriculture Programme, along with funding from Framework Programme 7.

The move effectively took the project out of the private sector and handed it to the EU, but now the funding is back on track, private companies are once again keen to participate.

EADS Astrium is already gearing up to bid for work, announcing on Monday it has agreed to acquire the Surrey University spin-out Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL), which developed and launched the only Galileo satellite in orbit currently.

Getting the nod from the politicians gives the European Space Agency the authority to start the process of awarding the contracts under public procurement rules.

Six infrastructure packages

The infrastructure contracts will be split into six main packages of system engineering support, ground mission infrastructure, ground control infrastructure, satellites, launchers and operations. Competitive tendering of all packages will take place in a single procedure and any one company or group may bid for no more than two of the six main work packages.

Meanwhile, the second Galileo satellite into space, Giove-B will be launched from Kazakhstan by a Russian Soyuz rocket in April 27. The first Galileo satellite was launched in 2005. However, Giove-B was delayed for almost one year due to a short-circuit problem in final testing.

The European Commission is responsible for the establishment and operation of the programme, and will be assisted by a specially formed Supervisory Authority and the European Space Agency in its implementation. While the project will be 100 per cent owned by the EU, it is possible that public–private partnerships will be set up to operate and maintain the system once it is operational in 2013.

The rapid development of the consumer market for satellite navigation systems over the past two to three years has provided an exemplar for how global positioning systems can drive new applications and new markets. Galileo promises to deliver a substantial improvement to the US’s Global Positioning System, with greater availability and accuracy.

The Commission believes that along with better and more accurate coverage, the guaranteed availability of Galileo will prompt far more investment in satnav applications and provide a Web 2.0–type focus for start-up companies.

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