Europe's much-delayed Galileo satellite navigation system has received a huge boost in the form of €500 million ($715 million)-worth of cost savings enabling the purchase and launch of enough satellites to provide near-global coverage by the end of 2014.
The plan had been to launch a functional constellation of 18 spacecraft, starting with the first two on 20 October and a second pair early in 2012 before a series of six-monthly launches. But at Paris, European Commission vice-president for industry Antonio Tajani announced that cost savings found by the commission, European Space Agency and industry will instead give Europe near-complete coverage.
The accelerated plan will require a new tender for spacecraft and a busier launch schedule, which ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain said is feasible. Tajani's office said that new spacecraft may prove more capable than existing designs, so the full extent of coverage available remains to be seen.
Tajani, who is ultimately responsible for Galileo and has promised to rein in costs, was clearly delighted to announce more good news about a programme that has suffered a series of budget-busting delays and long ago abandoned hope of reaching its original target operational capability in 2007.
He has described the inaugural October launches as of "historical importance" as Europe seeks to match or exceed US capability in a technology that will bring significant safety, operational and economic benefits to European citizens.
The Galileo plan calls for 27 spacecraft and three orbiting spares by 2019.
Tajani was in Paris to observe the signing of two key contracts securing the provision of the ground infrastructure needed to operate and maintain Galileo. Thales Alenia Space has formally taken on a €281 million contract to build a global network of ground stations to monitor signals from the satellites, ensure their reliability and manage user access to the Galileo encrypted public regulated service.
EADS's Astrium space division signed a €73 million deal to be prime contractor for ground facilities to operate the satellites, extending its responsibility from the in-orbit validation phase to the full operational phase.