Europe’s much-delayed Galileo satellite navigation system is set to offer its first services around year-end, with 10 spacecraft in orbit to make a functional constellation.
Following a meeting with key industrial partners and European Space Agency head Jean-Jacques Dordain, European Commission vice-president Antonio Tajani expressed confidence that “strong commitment to the launch” of six additional satellites this year “could allow initial Galileo services to be available, subject to finalising all technical issues, at the end of 2014 [or] beginning of 2015”.
Tajani, responsible for industry and entrepreneurship in the EU, has made the realisation of Galileo a cornerstone of his leadership. Since a 2011 agreement he has worked to break a cycle of delays by winning concession from industrial partners to cut €500 million ($684 million) from the programme’s industrial costs, to fund the purchase of enough satellites for near-global coverage by the close of 2014 and initiate a fast-track launch schedule.
Technical problems in the development of the spacecraft – being built by OHB in Germany, with navigation payloads by Surrey Satellite Technology in the UK – have held up their launch, but barring further surprises they should fly in spring 2014, as a dual payload by Soyuz launcher from Kourou, French Guiana. Thus, while the 10 units expected to be flying by end-2014 – including four test units already in orbit – will fall short of the 18 needed for that goal of near-global coverage, the introduction of “initial services” will be a welcome start.
The European Commission regards Galileo as a strategic priority, as it sees satellite navigation capabilities as being too important to leave to US, Russian or Chinese infrastructure. And, unlike the US GPS system – run by the military, which can deny use of the signals – Galileo will be under civilian control.
The Galileo project was first agreed at the European level in 2003, but by 2007 it was adrift amid budget wrangling. Tajani’s intervention in 2011 gave the programme a breath of life, and apart from being slowed by the latest technical difficulties, it appears to be on course for a fast-track launch plan.
Speaking in November, Dordain said ESA would not be pressing to make up for lost time in any bid to stick to the broad timetable of having 27 satellites flying in 2019. This is because it would not be possible to manufacture 22 satellites faster than planned without massive new investment, and launcher availability is also a limiting factor.
However, he says the next two launches were still expected to be the first of a two satellites every three months launch regime. Depending on the availability of spacecraft, one way to speed up deployment will be to launch four at once – a capability ESA will have from end-2014, when a special variant of its Ariane 5 heavy lifter designed for the purpose becomes available.
Also, he says the four satellites already in orbit – of an earlier design used to validate the system – are providing “fantastic” performance, beyond expectations. Where specification had been for 4m accuracy horizontally and 8m vertically, the four-satellite “in-orbit validation” constellation was providing 2m by 4m accuracy.