The on-going off-and-on story of Europe's Galileo satellite global positioning system is turning into a tall tale that makes an Icelandic saga read like a limp limerick by comparison. Talk about a story that "will run and run". It's doing that alright, but it remains impossible to judge if it will ever fly.
The 30-strong satellite constellation has long been planned to be Europe's alternative to the global positioning system financed, launched by the US and run by the American military. Currently the only alternative is Russia's GLONASS and there's little doubt that America's near-monopoly could do with a competitive boot up the backside. However, getting a rival system launched by a bunch of self-important and nationalistic member states of the European Union squabbling over funding and status is proving all but impossible.
To say that the much-vaunted Galileo constellation is a bit behind schedule is akin to claiming that Galileo Galilei, the Renaissance physicist, mathematician, philosopher and astronomer, after whom the project is named, is ever so slightly dead.
The € 3.4 billion (and rising) Galileo Global Navigation Satellite System is a joint venture of the EU and the European Space Agency (ESA). Galileo is intended to provide more precise measurements to all users than is available through GPS or GLONASS (the US system was deliberately degraded following the 9/11 terrorist attacks), better positioning services at high latitudes and an independent positioning system upon which European and other nations could rely in times of international crisis and even war, especially in light of the fact that the US authorities have threatened to take down its system "should circumstances warrant it". At the same time the Bush administration been lobbying hard against the launch of Galileo on the grounds that it could compromise both NATO and American security.
Galileo was first mooted in 1999 but eight, almost nine years on it remains stubbornly on the drawing board. Back in late January 2002, the project almost went completely belly-up as a result of a combination of US pressure and financial problems. Indeed a project spokesperson said at the time that "Galileo is on its deathbed".
However, that near-death experience actually resulted in new life being breathed into the project and, a few months later, EU member states voted that Europe should, and will, have its own independent satellite-based positioning and timing infrastructure.
Then, in early summer 2004, in response to further US pressure, the EU agreed to switch to a range of frequencies known as "Binary Offset Carrier 1.1." This will allow both EU and US forces to block one another's signals in a battlefield situation without disabling the entire system.
However, potential launch dates have come and gone and for most of this year the Galileo project has been bogged down in disputes over funding in the aftermath of the collapse of EU negotiations with private sector investors who were supposed to have come up with € 2.4 billion of construction costs.
Late last month this stalemate was finally broken when it was agreed that cash to cover the shortfall would be sourced from unspent farm subsidies already laying there in the EU exchequer (yes, I know it's incredible to think that there might actually be a few euros worth of subsidy not taken up by the likes of the paw-paw producers of Padiham, Lancs and the coconut co-operatives of Cork, but it seems that there is) but the whole, massively complex procurement process has now become a cross between a maze and a minefield, and that's a difficult place to do business.
In an effort to find an exit, the EU is now simplifying and softening the requirements of the tendering process in an effort to attract more private EU-owned companies to participate. It has also n been decided that Galileo's construction phase will be managed by the ESA, which is not a part of the EU government and has a different set of member states.
The ESA says that henceforth it expects the Galileo project to move forward quickly with the initial In-Orbit Validation (IOV) set of four satellites launched in 2010 on two Russian Soyuz rockets. Thereafter the plan is to loft the remaining 26 satellites on two huge Ariane V lifts of six satellite each and a further eight twin-satellite Soyuz launches.
That sounds all well and good but final approval of the funding plan must be stamped by the European Parliament before the New Year, and also by national transport ministers. To get this done by the start of 2008 could well be difficult despite the new found determination to move the project forward as fast as possible.
Then, of course, there's the little matter of procurement. That could take years.
On November 30 the 27 EU transport ministers did manage to agree that Galileo should be operational by 2013. But, grandiloquent gestures apart, whether it can or will be is a moot point. After all, the plans and timetable that are still on view on EU websites say that Galileo "will be fully operable in 2008 at the latest".
Time for a reality check and a web update folks.
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