Oct. 23, 2011 -- It is years behind schedule. But on Friday, two satellites belonging to the European navigation system Galileo are heading into orbit. The system promises to be more precise than anything currently available. But Europe has paid dearly for its autonomy.
There are some, of course, who might say the launch came a decade late. But officially, Friday's launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana -- carrying the first two satellites for the European navigation system Galileo -- was only delayed by one day.
Originally set for liftoff on Thursday, an "anomaly (was) detected during fueling," according to a statement released soon after the aborted launch by Arianespace, the commercial arm of the European Space Agency. Arianespace CEO Jean-Yves Le Gall stressed that the problem had to do with on-the-ground fueling equipment rather than with the rocket itself. The defective part was quickly replaced.
The precaution is understandable. When it takes off, the Soyuz rocket will be carrying a valuable payload -- nothing less than the technical heart of the new navigation system, Europe's answer to the GPS system. Each of the two satellites contains two atomic clocks from Spectra time, a Swiss company famous for the precision -- and prices -- of its time pieces. Each clock costs a few hundred thousand euros, and are far from elegant. Indeed, they look similar to a mechanic's metal toolbox. But these clocks only lose or gain one second about every 3 million years.
The clocks -- the first of what will eventually become an entire fleet of time-pieces orbiting the Earth -- have a second advantage as well. They are made in Europe. "In Europe, there is only one manufacturer of atomic clocks suitable for use in space -- us," Jean-Yves Courtois, CEO of Spectra Time's parent company, Orolia, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Since Galileo is meant to serve as the European alternative to GPS, Courtois finds it only logical to rely exclusively on technology from Europe.
Precaution dictates that each satellite carries two clocks -- one powered by hydrogen and one by rubidium per satellite -- in case one proves defective. Once in space, the satellites transmit the time along with their current position down to earth, where receiving devices can then calculate their positions using information from four satellites. What Galileo Can Do
Once the Soyuz rocket releases its payload more than 23,000 kilometers (14,290 miles) above the Earth's surface, the satellites -- named Natalia and Thijs, after two children from Bulgaria and Belgium who won an art contest -- will have to cope with a constant barrage of cosmic radiation. The atomic clocks will also have to be regularly recalibrated by even more precise timing devices back on Earth. A technical masterpiece, Galileo goes into initial operation in 2014 -- and will offer three navigation services that are more exact than the American GPS system:
a free "open service" that can accurately track automobiles down to the meter in addition to assisting in measuring plots of land; an encrypted "commercial service," available for a fee, that promises even more precision; a service for "safety-of-life" applications, such as air- and rail-traffic control. This particular option has a built-in warning system that alerts users when the signal quality from the satellites fluctuates.
Once Galileo is fully operational -- forecast for 2020 -- two additional services will be available:
a "public regulated service" for governmental operations (and military as well), that is protected against interference, among other threats; a "search-and-rescue" service able to track distress signals from ships or aircraft. Anyone transmitting SOS signals could then be contacted directly over satellite frequencies.
Still, what sets Galileo apart is less its technology and more the politics behind it. With the help of its new fleet of satellites, Europe not only wants to liberate itself from the American GPS system -- which the Pentagon can scramble in the event of war or national emergency -- but also from China and Russia. The latter two have their own satellite navigation systems, called Baidu and Glonass respectively.
The European system is a long time in the making. Initially, the US expressed extreme displeasure with the project, annoyed that the European Union was going it alone. Furthermore, a private industry consortium collapsed and the EU had to step in with increased funding.
Meanwhile, Galileo's start-up costs climbed from €3.5 billion euros ($4.8 billion) to €5 billion euros. The Commission is also preparing for an additional €1 billion in costs from 2014 to 2020 -- per year. Indeed, that Galileo could one day cover its own costs is a delusion that many in Brussels discarded long ago.
Friction between Europe and China
But Europe wants the system to be completely autonomous, no matter what the cost. In recent weeks, with the launch of the satellites looming, certain electronic components were removed. The pieces in question were part of Galileo's search-and-rescue service. But they were manufactured in China, something Brussels wasn't at all happy about. There was concern that the parts might disrupt the satellites. As a result, the Chinese-made electronics have now been replaced by non-functional metal weights.
By the time the system is finished, it will contain a total of 30 satellites. At least some of them are already under construction. Astrium, a subsidiary of the European aerospace giant EADS, is manufacturing four satellites while Bremen-based OHB has assumed responsibility for making 14 more. The remaining contracts have yet to be awarded.
No Formal Complaint There remains, however, a fundamental problem: the Europeans and Chinese are still quibbling about the radio frequencies of their navigation systems. As it turns out, Galileo and China's Baidu system use some of the same channels -- specifically the ones between 1164 and 1215 megahertz -- to beam information back down to earth. Beijing has been stubborn, arguing that it should be allowed to retain certain rights because China's Baidu technology beat Galileo into space.
Such a dispute would normally be a case for the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU). But officials there say no formal complaint has been filed. If the Europeans and Chinese are unable to reach an agreement, it is likely only a matter of time before one is filed.
Galileo has also driven the Europeans -- despite their desire for independence -- to cooperate with some unlikely partners. The Russian-made Soyuz rocket will launch on Friday from a purpose-built launch pad that is an exact copy of the launch pads used in the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The Russian Soyuz rockets are appealing because sending them into orbit costs a fraction of the European Ariane model. Apparently money does play a role sometimes -- even with Galileo.