Satellite showdown

Earlier this week, UK space company Surrey Satellite Technology announced that it had used GIOVE-A, the first demonstration satellite for Europe’s Galileo system to capture a signal reflected off the ocean surface. SSTL claims that the successful experiment demonstrates the potential of the system to improve ocean weather forecasting: warning sailors of storms and providing data for global climate change models.

It’s a familiar story of engineering enterprise from the Guildford-based space specialist, and it appears to underline claims that Galileo – a project which arose from a European desire to avoid the whims of the US military – will have commercial and scientific applications that haven’t been possible with GPS.

Sadly, appearances can be deceptive, and despite the best efforts of UK engineers to show the potential worth of Galileo, the project isn’t exactly in rude health.

While the plan is to have a constellation of 30 satellites orbiting the earth by 2013 so far a single test satellite (GIOVE-A) has been put into orbit and the launch of a second has been delayed. Earlier this year, amidst disagreements on how to divide up the work, the consortium charged with building the system fell apart.

On Friday, in a last ditch attempt to keep the project on the rails the EU voted to contribute an additional €2.4bn of taxpayers money to complete the project. The original plan was that the eight private companies in the consortium would meet around €3.4m of the cost. As the EU’s biggest financier, Germany, which was the only member state to vote against the proposal, is not particularly happy with deal. In what has been viewed as an effort to quell German fears that the French will get all the best bits of the project The EU has also put forward a new tendering process in which no single company will be allowed to win more than two of the six segments of work offered to build the system. It’s all beginning to sound less like an exciting venture that will give Europe the edge and open up a range of commercial opportunities and more like a doomed exercise in appeasement.

Against this backdrop of political disagreement, unproven technology, ongoing advances to GPS, and rival Russian and Chinese systems, EU transport ministers will meet tomorrow to decide on how to divvy up the remaining work. If at any stage the deal falters, the project could end up being scrapped, and some critics argue that could be the best thing for it.

Jon Excell