Galileo Blasts through Launch Problems

By Leftly, Mark | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), March 18, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Galileo Blasts through Launch Problems


Leftly, Mark, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


As the rain poured, smoke billowed out of the end of the thin, Russian Soyuz rocket. Within seconds, fire filled the launchpad as the rocket shot into the murky grey sky.

The European Union's 12-year dream of a constellation of satellites that would provide the bloc with an independent navigation system was finally becoming reality. Search-and-rescue missions, transport, healthcare and agriculture are just a handful of the sectors that will benefit from the EU's giant sat-nav, a free service that will tell civilians their location with pinpoint accuracy.

That launch of the first two Galileo satellites - named after the 16th-century Italian astronomer - took place from French Guyana in October, so the first operational services should be available by the end of 2014. That's seven years later than first envisaged, while costs run into the billions of euros.

Throw in a US angered by what it sees as a threat to the dominance and competitiveness of its global positioning system - albeit that it is military focused, while Galileo is primarily for civilian use - and a UK that has been sceptical over the system's budget and subsidies, just getting to that launch looks like quite a feat.

Much of the success is down to Antonio Tajani, the EU's Rome- born Industry Commissioner. Since taking office two years ago, Tajani has worked at cutting Galileo's costs, mitigating delays and smoothing member state tensions, one reason for his whirlwind visit to London last week.

He implemented a review last year that brought down Galileo's installation costs from 1.9bn to under 1.5bn. A further 5.4bn will be required from EU states to cover operational costs after 2014. However, he is insistent that Galileo could boost the bloc's economy by as much as 90bn in its first 20 years.

Flanked by an entourage that would not be out of place on The West Wing, Tajani says: "All the money, all the delays were no good for our image - no good for the citizens, because it's public money. The first task was to reduce the cost. I am optimistic."

Tajani adds that getting the budget under control is "a good message to the UK". As far back as 2001, the British government tried to block Galileo and, while those reservations were formally dropped, officials and politicians have privately spat blood over the budget ever since.

The UK was slightly placated last month with a 250m contract to build eight satellites. Although the contract was won by Germany's OHB, this group is closely linked with Guildford-based Surrey Satellite Technologies, which will build satellite components.

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