Galileo in jeopardy

A long-running argument between Germany and Italy could mean the death of Galileo, intended as Europe’s answer to the US GPS satellite navigation system, experts warned this week.

Since EU approval for the £2.2bn project was awarded last March work on the satellite system has been stalled by an argument between the partners over who will lead the programme.

Negotiations were held at the European Space Agency Council meeting in December, with officials confident a solution could be reached. But the deadline passed without agreement, with Germany refusing to sign despite Italian concessions. Sources believe ESA hopes to hold a new Council meeting before the end of January.

As a result of the nine-month delay none of the money allocated in March has been spent, and there is concern the project may never get off the ground, said Keith Woods, an information systems consultant. ‘At the start of the process two years ago the European space industry stated that unless we get a move on there would be no point in doing it, as it would be too late. I think at some point the politicians will use that as an argument for shutting it down.’

Since the go-ahead was given for the development of Galileo the US Department of Defence has announced plans to modernise the GPS system, to make it as accurate as Galileo. This could reduce pressure on the EU to pursue the project, said Woods. ‘People like navigators don’t care who puts the signals up as long as they have got them, and won’t be too concerned about the European system if the US one goes ahead. So there is some feeling that there won’t be any pressure from people like the Institute of Navigation because they feel they are going to be covered anyway.’

But Franco Bonacina, spokesman for ESA, said although the failure of the negotiations was a blow, the organisation still hoped an agreement could be reached. ‘We are hopeful that the programme is still alive… it is a political decision for the member states. If they want it they can have it, if not they’ll let it go. But we hope they won’t, because it is too important for Europe.’

Galileo is based on a constellation of 30 satellites and ground stations, and will be used to provide positioning information to locate vehicles, control speeds, and guide trains and ships. In air navigation Galileo is expected to improve air traffic control systems.

Unlike GPS, Galileo is designed as a non-military system, offering businesses a more reliable service without the threat of signals being cut off by the US.

Launch of the satellites is due to begin in 2006, to allow the system to be operational by 2008. But the ongoing argument means that at the very least the project is facing significant delays, said Mike Healy, director of navigation at Astrium, the satellite firm that makes up 50 per cent of the Galileo Industries consortium bidding to run the programme.

‘This leaves industry in a difficult position, because the communications market is on a downward cycle and Galileo was our big hope to offset these problems. The programme was already two years late before this nine-month delay, so a further delay of two months would be disastrous for industry,’ he said.