I was happy to note that yesterday the first test satellite for Europe´s coming space navigation system Galileo was placed in orbit from the Russian launch site at Baikonur in Kazakstan.
It’s a small first step in the deployment of a system that will have major importance in the decades ahead.
There is of course already the US GPS system in operation. Funded and operated primarily by the US Navy, it was optimized from the beginning for military applications, although it has now also been opened up for civilian use.
The Galileo system is different in that it represents a later generation and is optimized for a large number of different primarily civilian applications. It will be Europe’s own global navigation satellite system, providing a highly accurate, guaranteed global positioning service under civilian control.
To add to the global advantage, it will be inter-operable both with the GPS system and with Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass). Galileo will deliver real-time positioning accuracy down to the metric range with unrivaled integrity.
An enormous number of applications are planned for Galileo, including positioning and derived value-added services for transport by road, rail, air and sea, fisheries and agriculture, oil prospecting, civil protection activities, building, public works and telecommunications.
Some years ago, I headed a so called wise men’s group reporting to the European Space Agency on the future direction of Europe´s space activities.
Then, the idea of Galileo was still in its infancy and by no means uncontroversial. But our group was strong in our recommendation to go ahead with the project, and thus made our contribution to what we are now seeing starting to shape up.
In the meantime, most of the opposition to the project has been overcome. For a fairly long period, the US Departement of Defense was very keen on trying to kill the entire thing since they saw it as a threat to their dominance of these issues, and were not certain that they could either control or neutralize the system in a conflict situation or in a conflict zone. It was – in the political sense – a rather brutal battle that was played out.
But that issue has been sorted out to mutual satisfaction, and the DoD has now accepted the new realities. Everything in the world isn’t warfighting – and this system is primarily for the civilian sector.
The launch yesterday was a small step for Europe – but potentially a most important one.