Emma Kelly/LONDON

European transport ministers, the European Commission (EC) and the continent's space and navigation industries are set to meet this month to determine whether the development of Europe's Galileo satellite navigation system will get the green light by the end of the year.

The European Union Transport Council is due to decide on launching Galileo development on 20/21 December, following the completion of definition studies on system design, financial, legal, operational and international aspects. The industry groups, established earlier this year to define the system, are progressing well with technical aspects, but institutional issues are proving more complex and could impact the December decision, says Mike Healy, head of navigation business development at Astrium, which is aiming to be a prime Galileo contractor.

Two architecture options are being studied - 30 medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites at a 24,000km (15,000 miles) altitude, and a combined MEO and geostationary earth orbit (GEO) option featuring 24 MEO and eight GEO satellites. The Galileo Steering Committee will decide on which option to present to transport ministers, but the MEO option is the favoured one, says Healy.

A major issue to be resolved is the public-private partnership (PPP) which will finance the €3 billion ($2.8 billion) system. The EC and European Space Agency have committed €1.45 billion, but there is still a €1.5 billion shortfall, plus a further €250 million a year to operate the system from 2008, when it is due to be fully operational. The PPP initiative is "progressing slowly", but the legal framework is missing and there is an "urgent need" to make progress on it and liability issues, says Healy.

On 12 October, the chief executives of the two main consortia bidding for Galileo development - Galileo Industries comprising Astrium, Alcatel Space and Alenia Spazio, and Siderius (Thomson-CSF, Thomson-CSF Racal and TeleSpazio) - will meet with EC transport commissioner Loyola de Palacio to discuss the private sector commitment. Healy believes that industry could provide over €20 million to the next two years of Galileo development, although no firm commitment has been made.

Although "a lot of progress has been made" on Galileo, Healy says that funding issues could delay a full go-ahead decision. "It is possible that there could be a six month delay to the decision, but it is more likely that there could be a caveat," he says, suggesting that the EU could hold back the full €3 billion and instead provide a smaller amount for the start of work and allow a further six months to define the PPP. The EC is keen to get on with Galileo development, recognising that "the longer Galileo takes to get to market, the stronger the GPS [global positioning system] will be".

Source: Flight International