An artist's impression of the Galileo constellation in orbit

Launch of delayed Galileo promises step change in positioning accuracy

Image credit: European Space Agency

Europe’s navigational satellite system Galileo has gone live on Thursday after years of delays and cost overruns promising a step change in positioning accuracy compared to GPS.

With 18 satellites currently in orbit, the system has entered its Initial Services phase of operations. Galileo is now providing free positioning information to users of enabled smartphones and in-car systems, as well as encrypted data for public services such as firefighters and police. Galileo is also part of the Cospar-Sarsat emergency beacon location service.

“Geo-localisation is at the heart of the on-going digital revolution with new services that transform our daily lives,” said European Commission’s Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič.

“Galileo will increase geo-location precision ten-fold and enable the next generation of location-based technologies such as autonomous cars, connected devices, or smart city services. Today I call on European entrepreneurs and say: imagine what you can do with Galileo – don't wait, innovate!”

Once fully operational, Galileo will provide positioning accuracy of one metre compared to several metres currently possible through the US GPS, with which Galileo is designed to be fully compatible.

A further 12 satellites will be launched in the next three years to provide coverage around the whole globe. Twenty-four out of the total of 30 satellites will make up the constellation with six orbital spares for redundancy.

“Today’s announcement marks the transition from a test system to one that is operational,” said Paul Verhoef, director of the Galileo Programme and Navigation-related Activities at the European Space Agency (Esa), which has overseen the design and deployment of Galileo on behalf of the European Commission.

“Still, much work remains to be done. The entire constellation needs to be deployed, the ground infrastructure needs to be completed and the overall system needs to be tested and verified. In addition, together with the Commission we have started work on the second generation.”

Galileo, incepted in the early 2000s, was originally expected to start operations in 2008 with a budget of some €3bn (£2.5bn). However, the venture has been marred with problems and was nearly cancelled in 2006 after the public/private partnership originally responsible for its delivery fell apart. The European Commission rescued the programme by nationalising it. The cost of the constellation is now estimated to reach €10bn by 2020.

The first in-orbit validation satellites were launched in 2011, with the delivery of the full operational capability spacecraft beginning in 2014.

The Soyuz rocket launching the first two fully operational capability spacecraft suffered a technical malfunction, which left the two satellites stranded in an incorrect orbit.

It took months for Esa’s spacecraft controllers to adjust the orbits of the two satellites to make them usable.

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