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In space, a new strategy and a big launch of satellites highlight Galileo system’s future capabilities and opportunities

By PATRICK STEPHENSON

BRUSSELS – On 26 October, the EU and the European Space Agency agreed a ‘Space Strategy for Europe’ to guide cooperation between the two. Highlighting the strategy’s purposes, Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčović said the new document will “put the potential of space to work for Europe and Europeans.”

The new strategy has four primary goals, namely to:

* maximize the economic and social benefits of European space activities, particularly the Galileo system

* foster a globally competitive and innovative European space sector, in part by reducing Europe’s dependence on critical components and technologies

* reinforce Europe’s autonomy in using space securely and safely

* will strengthen Europe’s role as a global actor and promote international cooperation.

Among its security-related priorities, the strategy seeks to ensure that European institutions, companies and militaries can access space without the launchers that foreign partners have previously provided. By its own account, the EU will launch at least 30 satellites for its Galileo and Copernicus programmes over the next 10-15 years. European-made launchers such as the Ariane 6 and the Vega C will deliver those payloads into orbit.

An operational Galileo system will also help the EU guarantee that European operators, whether public or private, will have access to the radio spectrum — a big consideration as huge corporations and governments gobble up finer and finer slices of scare bandwidth.

Over time, the EU has become the ESA’s largest European customer as well as its largest budget contributor, providing funding as sponsor and client. In part, the strategy formalizes this increasingly close relationship.

The new strategy comes at an appropriate time, as a specially modified Ariane 5 rocket prepares to carry four Galileo satellites into orbit on 17 November from across the Atlantic. The Ariane 5 has been in development since 2012, and it replaces the Russian-made Soyuz rockets that carried previous satellites.

With 18 components in place, Galileo should soon allow the functioning of services like search-and-rescue and the Galileo Public Regulated Service (PRS), an encrypted navigation service for sensitive applications and government users such as emergency services and the police. PRS will be more resistant to malicious interference such as jamming or ‘spoofing’, when counterfeit signals produce false global positioning data. The system’s full operational capacity is scheduled for 2019/2020, when some 24 satellites will be in orbit.

Paul Verhoef, director of navigation programmes at ESA, said users will feel Galileo’s presence. “GPS has a number of satellites, which still is a problem [with reception] in cities,” he said. “With the addition of Galileo satellites, the availability of positioning signals in cities will increase significantly, and this is what users will start noticing.”

The next step is integrating satellite and terrestrial navigation for seamless operation. “If we use, at the moment, satellite navigation in the context of railways, we have the issue of tunnels,” Verhoef said. “So we are forced to connect that up to terrestrial navigation. This integration has not yet taken place, but it is absolutely essential if we want these services to be used in the railway sector.”

     THE UPSHOT: The strategy appears less of a to-do list than a “to-think” list, laying out the Commission’s desire to refocus the ESA’s traditionally scientific and security-related mission towards business. No doubt, member states and the Commission hope to leverage the soon-to-be-online Galileo, as companies across the world have leveraged GPS. In short, the ESA will make the whisky, and the EU will help to sell and drink it.
     This economic focus may explain why the signing event’s roundtable of experts consisted not of European scientists or astronauts, but of space ‘entrepreneurs’ using ESA-provided data services. Fair enough. The global space sector — estimated to be worth some 200 billion euros a year — is huge and growing, and European nations naturally want the ESA to focus on grabbing a piece of that pie in the sky.
     But there may be a more security-related angle to the ESA’s trajectory. Years ago, ESA partnered with NASA on many joint missions. Then, for a time, the ESA considered Russia its “first partner” in ensuring its “long-term access to space.”
     That phrase has disappeared from the ESA website, surely due in large part to the EU’s estrangement from Russia over Ukraine. Without foreign suitors, ESA has chosen a familiar partner close to home, namely the EU. Better to gaze at the stars with a sibling, than to gaze alone.

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