Log in ....Tribune

Dot.ComLatest in ITFree DownloadsOn hardware

Monday, March 25, 2002

European Unionís nod to Galileo
Robin McKie

A revolutionary satellite navigation system that will monitor lorry fleets on the road, help blind people move round cities and guide planes in flight, was given the go-ahead last week.

The $ 3 billion Galileo project, which was agreed by European Union leaders meeting in Barcelona yesterday, will give Europe a major lead in space technology and could transform day-to-day life.

It is highly controversial, however. American engineers and politicians had campaigned vigorously against Galileo, claiming Europe should have stuck with the existing US Global Positioning Satellites (GPS), but Europe was forced to go it alone because of growing fears that the Americans could one day switch off their satellites during war or political disputes.

'We've got a result on Galileo. It is now approved. Everyone has subscribed to it,' said the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, whose country is presiding at the EU summit. The system should be working in 2008.


The world now has two space navigation networks - America's GPS and Russia's Glonass. Both are made up of military satellites that beam signals which civilians with handheld receivers can use to pinpoint their position with an accuracy of several yards.

GPS receivers are standard kit for yacht racers, climbers, lifeboat crews, helicopter rescue pilots, and many others. Some bus services, such as those in Leicester, use them to monitor their fleets, while cars are often fitted with navigation systems to guide their drivers.

However, both systems have drawbacks: there is no guarantee of signal cover, and neither the Americans nor the Russians accept financial liability for breakdowns. Both systems are also unreliable in high latitudes, near the poles.

As a result, EU and European Space Agency officials planned a system that would be a far more precise, down to single metre accuracy, and employing many more satellites, so that coverage would be far more reliable. A total of 30 satellites, orbiting 15,000 miles above the earth, will be constructed.

Existing GPS receivers can be made to work with high precision, but this requires the use of banks of additional computers. Galileo is much more sophisticated, and will provide scientists with an easy-to-use, extremely precise service that will make it possible to study - from space - tiny tectonic movements of the ground in earthquake zones, or analyse rising water levels in rivers and lakes during storms.

There should also be major advantages to industry. The manufacture of GPS receivers is a protected monopoly as far as its US military use is concerned. Now European manufacturers will be able to step into the market. Similarly, Europe's space engineers believe Galileo should revolutionise car and lorry transport, thus cutting car journey times by about 25 per cent. This in turn would reduce poisonous exhaust emissions.