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Last Updated: Friday, 30 November 2007, 19:29 GMT
'Unanimous backing' for Galileo
Giove-A satellite (European Space Agency)
So far, just one test satellite, Giove-A, has been launched
EU transport ministers have decided to press on with the multi-billion euro Galileo satellite-navigation project.

The decision was made initially without the support of Spain, but it too finally threw its backing behind the troubled and much delayed venture.

Ministers had until the end of the year to reach an agreement. The system is supposed to be in operation by 2013.

Questions remain about its cost but supporters say it will create jobs and cut dependence on the US GPS service.

"This is going to ensure economic and strategic independence," commented EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot. "Spatial navigation is really an indication of our power amongst the countries of the world."

The EU's executive had previously said that if agreement was not reached by January 2008, the long-troubled project would essentially be dead.

The current crisis was triggered by the collapse earlier in the year of the private consortium asked to build most of Galileo's infrastructure and run its services.

Two segment rule

The transport ministers, meeting in Brussels, have now approved a plan to remodel the project, and refinance it solely from the EU budget, using spare - primarily agriculture - funds.

Artist's impression of Galileo constellation, Esa
A European Commission and European Space Agency project
30 satellites to be launched in batches by end of 2011-12
Will work alongside US GPS and Russian Glonass systems
Promises real-time positioning down to less than a metre
Guaranteed under all but most extreme circumstances
Suitable for safety-critical roles where lives depend on service

Once the 3.4bn-euro (2.4bn) Galileo system is up and running, a private group is still likely to be asked to operate the network.

The other key area to be resolved by the Transport Council concerned the division of construction contracts across Europe.

Thirty satellites must be lofted into a mid-Earth orbit 26,000km above the planet. These will be supported by ground stations in Italy and Germany.

The Brussels meeting adopted a six-segment approach, with no one company being allowed the prime contractor position on more than two segments.

The stipulation was designed to pacify Germany, which, as the EU's biggest financial contributor, had feared its industry would not get a sufficient share of the business.

"I am very confident that the German space industry will get a substantial part of the project," Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee told reporters after the deal. "There is no monopoly possible for one national industry."

Spanish demands

It was the Spanish delegation which held out against unanimous endorsement.

Madrid had wanted a prominent role in Galileo control centre activities, which will be essential to monitor the space system's health and performance.

But when no satisfactory compromise could be worked out on Thursday during the protracted discussions, the other nations used their "qualified majority" to push through Mr Barrot's proposals.

The Spanish felt slighted by this manoeuvre and voiced their anger; but then on Friday, Madrid also gave its support to the remodelling and refinancing package.

Spain will play host to a "Safety of Life" ground centre dedicated to civil protection, in particular in the area of maritime, air and rail security. It has now received assurances that this control centre will be allowed to take on further responsibilities as the Galileo system is developed.

"The presidency announces that it was possible to have the agreement of all the delegations, without exception, on Galileo," said Portuguese Transport Minister Mario Lino, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency.

"We have always thought that it was best to be united on a project that is so important for Europe," he said.

Precision clocks

Galileo is envisaged as a rival (but technologically complementary) to GPS and touted as a key high-technology venture for the EU.

It is designed to improve substantially the availability and accuracy of timing signals delivered from space.

These signals already play a fundamental role - not just in navigation, but also in electricity distribution, the functioning of email and the internet, and in the security of financial transactions and many other economic activities.

Galileo's improved clocks are expected to deepen and extend this role.

The better penetration, accuracy and guarantees of service promised by Galileo should also give many more entrepreneurs the confidence to build business plans around sat-nav, say supporters.

Analysts expect sat-nav applications to boom as more and more mobile phones carry receiver chips.

But there are still many in Europe who have grave concerns about the costs of Galileo, and believe the benefits have been hyped. In the UK, a group of MPs recently issued a report that was scathing about the project's management and prospects.

NAVIGATION Open Access This will be 'free to air' and for use by the mass market; Simple timing and positioning down to 1m
Commercial Encrypted; High accuracy at the cm scale; Guaranteed service for which service providers will charge fees
Oil rig
Safety of life Open service; For applications where guaranteed accuracy is essential; Integrity messages warn of errors
Public regulated Encrypted; Continuous availability even in time of crisis; Government agencies will be main users
SAR Search and Rescue System will pick up distress beacon locations; Feasible to send feedback, confirming help is on its way

Galileo's project director defends the satellite system

Pros and cons of Europe's 'GPS'
29 Nov 07 |  Science/Nature
Satellite tie-up for fast Galileo
28 Nov 07 |  Science/Nature
MPs urge action on Galileo costs
12 Nov 07 |  Science/Nature
Galileo 'compromise' is emerging
23 Nov 07 |  Science/Nature
Europe launches Galileo satellite
28 Dec 05 |  Science/Nature
Q&A: Europe's Galileo project
28 Dec 05 |  Science/Nature

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