Page last updated at 14:20 GMT, Friday, 19 September 2008 15:20 UK

Firms chosen for Galileo run-off

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Giove-B (Esa)
The Giove-B demonstrator was launched earlier this year

Eleven industrial groups will compete for the contracts to build Europe's much-delayed satellite-navigation system, Galileo.

They were chosen from an initial list of 21 that had indicated an interest in participating in the project.

Galileo will rival but also complement the US GPS network.

The European Commission has set aside more than two billion euros to build 26 satellites, buy launch rockets and set up the ground control centres.

The Commission's partner, the European Space Agency (Esa), is running the procurement contest with the aim of having Galileo fully operational by 2013.

A European Commission and European Space Agency project
30 satellites to be launched in batches by end of 2013
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

As anticipated, the shortlist contains many of Europe's top aerospace, telecom and IT concerns. They will now have to convince the Commission and Esa that they can deliver the right technical solutions at a competitive price.

Galileo is expected to improve substantially the availability and accuracy of timing signals delivered from space.

Users should get quicker, more reliable fixes and be able to locate their positions with an error of one metre compared with the current GPS error of several metres.

But the project has been hit by delays and cost overruns. The original procurement plan involving a partnership between the public and private sectors collapsed; and the Commission was forced to start again, turning Galileo into an initiative that will be wholly financed from the public purse.

Nonetheless, many of the companies that were included in the original partnership are present in the shortlist of competing groups now hoping to win construction contracts.

The 11 pre-selected candidates are:

System Support (to bring all the elements of the project together): ThalesAleniaSpace (Italy); Logica (The Netherlands)

Ground Mission System (to look after the timing and navigation data): ThalesAleniaSpace (France); Logica (UK)

Ground Control System (to monitor the satellite constellation): Astrium (UK); G-Nav grouping represented by Lockheed Martin IS&S (UK)

Space segment (to build the satellites themselves): Astrium (Germany); OHB (Germany)

Launch Services (the rockets that will loft the network): Arianespace (France)

Operations (the day-to-day running of Galileo): Nav-up grouping represented by Inmarsat (UK); DLR (Germany) and Telespazio (Italy)

Some work on Galileo is already under way - four operational satellites and some ground control systems are in the process of being built. The "six work packages" now open to competition have strict rules governing how much work can go to each company and how much of that work must then be sub-contracted to partners.

This means a lot of the work will be spread around Europe; and if work segments are split to ensure speed, the spread could be wider still. This is quite likely to happen for the preparation of the satellites, for example.

In any event, it looks now as though the spacecraft will be a team effort between Germany and the UK, with the satellite payloads (their electronic brains) being prepared in Britain and the chassis construction and final integration being done in Germany.

This comes about through any division of the space segment - because Astrium Germany will use UK colleagues on the payload; and OHB will use its UK partner, SSTL in Guildford, for the same job.

"This is really great for UK industry," said Phil Davies from SSTL. "It gives us a key role far into the future."

Timescales are tight. The first four constellation spacecraft are expected to be launched in 2010, with the remaining 26 put in orbit by the end of 2013.

In April this year, a test satellite dubbed Giove-B was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

Giove-B contains key technologies - such as atomic clocks - which will eventually be built into the 30 operational platforms that form the Galileo network.

Europe has already spent 1.6bn euros ($2.5bn; 1.3bn) on the project and ministers and the European Parliament have warned that the additional 3.4bn euros ($5.3bn; 2.7bn) recently approved for all sat-nav investments will be the limit on expenditure.


A guide to the main features on Giove-B

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