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An artist's impression of the Galileo constellation in orbit
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View from Brussels: Eyes in our stars

Image credit: European Space Agency

Europe may lag behind the USA and other world powers when it comes to putting humans into space but when it comes to getting satellites into orbit, the odds are more evenly matched. We’re just starting to see European satellite programmes come of age.

Space is a hot topic these days, with the anniversary of the Moon landing, rocket failures delaying take-offs, debates ongoing about anti-satellite lasers and Spider-Man’s latest big-screen outing involving a deadly orbital weapon.

Indeed, 10 per cent of the EU’s gross domestic product is reliant on space-based activities, with much of that massive chunk of income coming from satellites and the transport sector.

The idea of buying a new car without some sort of built-in global positioning system is currently unthinkable, while many of the ride-share schemes popping up in our cities and towns all rely on the same technology.

It is an area in which Europe does not just want to compete but dominate. The Galileo positioning system is touted as more accurate than its American and Russian counterparts, GPS and GLONASS, and boasts civilian and military applications.

The idea of a home-grown satellite system was dreamt up by Europe’s leaders as a response to the US’s “gold standard” GPS, which its military used to great effect during the first Gulf War.

In 2020, the full constellation of 30 satellites is due to be operational and boost Galileo’s accuracy to a reported 20cm of precision. Private enterprises are already starting to tap into the services by offering products like commercial aircraft homing beacons.

Galileo’s search and rescue capacity has already slashed response times in sea and mountain missions from four hours to around ten minutes. Localisation accuracy has also improved from 10km to 2km since the service launched in 2016.

Its world-leading capabilities are also stoking protectionist tendencies in the EU institutions. Some seasoned MEPs think that Brussels should abandon its ‘technological neutrality’ stance and insist domestic-built vehicles come with Galileo as the default option.

As things stand, carmakers are free to choose what to install, unlike in the US, where GPS is the norm. A high-ranking official in the Commission’s transport department told your columnist that maybe the EU “should stop being naive”.

It is the same story when it comes to rocket launchers. The China, Russia and the US all offer lucrative long-term contracts to domestic manufacturers, while the EU puts its faith in the market. With a new Commission incoming in November that all could change.

After all, with 2,000 birds in orbit already and certainly more on the way, the market for getting them into space does not look like slowing down anytime soon.

But Galileo is not without its shortcomings. Last week, its services went down for nearly seven days due to a fault with “ground infrastructure equipment”. Explanations for the outage have so far been vague and analysts have criticised how administrators have handled public relations.

The technical impact may not have been that great because of other available options like GPS but the effect on trust could yet prove to be significant.

With its completion date approaching next year, Galileo wants to leverage its technological superiority to wrest GPS’s “gold standard” title away from its American cousin. That will only happen if users have faith in the system to guide them where they need to go when they need to.

More blips will surely occur, such is the nature of technology, so Galileo’s operators would be well-advised to make sure they handle such events effectively, quickly and transparently.

The head of the EU agency that manages satellites, Carlos des Dorides, said in a statement that he will set up an inquiry board to ensure such an unprecedented outage does not happen again.

Another satellite programme aiming to build a name for itself is Europe’s Earth-observation system, Copernicus, which has been peering down from the heavens since 2014.

In July, Copernicus has been activated a number of times on the request of Portugal and Spain, which are struggling to contain massive forest fires. The satellite was used last year for the same purpose when Sweden asked for assistance.

The satellite system’s applications are due for a boost in the coming years, as new additions to the constellation will allow monitoring of atmospheric conditions and sea levels. Plans are also in motion to monitor CO2 emissions and the state of the polar regions in more detail.

Copernicus also offers products that allows offshore wind-farm operators to gauge wind speeds and sea patterns, which should theoretically maximise the potential of their turbines and generate even more income.

So both satellite systems hold the potential to help establish EU countries as market champions in areas as diverse as the car industry and the clean energy sector. Seeing as the bloc will be increasing its efforts in both in the years to come, satellites could hold the key to success.

Talks are ongoing on the next seven-year-long EU budget with space policy on course to get a €3bn bump, bringing its war-chest up to €16bn. Although paling in comparison to Nasa’s $20bn per year budget, it is still a signal of intent.

Now space engineers will have to figure out what to do with all the junk that is accumulating up in orbit, taking up prime space real-estate and posing a danger to what is turning into an extremely profitable industry. But that’s a different story.

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