With its first satellites set to launch this year, EU seeks users for new space-based services
After two years of contentious debate, the European Commission has a freshly minted budget of €10 billion ($13.7 billion) over seven years with which to complete and launch two new flagship space programs: the Galileo satellite navigation constellation and the Copernicus Earth-observation system.
With some half-dozen spacecraft dedicated to the two programs set to launch this year, the EC's next task is to figure out how to use them.
“Space is a service before being a technology,” Paul Weissenberg, the EC's deputy director general for enterprise and industry, told an annual European Union space policy conference here Jan. 28-29. “It's fascinating to build satellites, it's fascinating to launch satellites, very emotional. But building and launching a satellite is not an aim in itself. It's a tool to deliver services to the citizen.”
As these space-based applications come online, the EC will tackle a host of challenges in the coming months. These include regulatory barriers that could hinder user uptake of Galileo applications; intellectual property rights that threaten EU efforts to stimulate a satellite terminal industry; and the slow-rolling of defense and security dimensions inherent in both satellite programs, owing to fear among European lawmakers of militarizing space, and beyond it, European policy.
For both Galileo and Copernicus, one of the EC's first tasks is to convince its own divisions of the benefits satellite navigation and space-based remote-sensing applications bring to non-space sectors. The most urgent case is Galileo, Europe's position, navigation and timing constellation, which will follow into orbit the U.S. GPS, China's Beidou and Russia's Glonass systems.
Like GPS, Europe's planned 30-satellite constellation will feature an open service available free of charge. With a budget of €6.3 billion through 2020, it is expected to allow users to know their exact position in time and space, but with greater precision and reliability than the GPS system today.
However, unlike other navigation and timing constellations, Galileo will deliver commercial services to key sectors, notably to airlines for positioning and navigation, or financial institutions for time-stamping electronic bank and stock transactions. In exchange for encrypted and guaranteed signals that deliver a higher data throughput rate and increased accuracy, users will be charged a fee.
Four Galileo prototype spacecraft are undergoing testing in orbit, and EC members say they are exceeding performance expectations, delivering precision positioning of 4 meters X 2 meters (13 ft. X 6.5 ft.) that is superior to initial specifications of 8 meters X 4 meters.
Six full-operational-capability satellites are slated to follow this year. With 10 in orbit, EC Vice President Antonio Tajani has vowed that “early services will be available in 2014 or the beginning of 2015.”
But the EC is already looking for ways to market Galileo applications. One possibility, says David Willetts, the U.K. minister for universities and science, is to embed requirements for space-based applications in European legislation aimed at large-scale infrastructure projects.
“We need to make better use of satellite services and show that space can make a real difference to many sectors,” he says, adding that some EU regulations should be updated to reflect technological advances. Citing Britain's current effort to develop a new high-speed rail service, he says, “If we follow EU standards, it won't have a signal that uses Galileo, and that is a missed opportunity.”
EC officials acknowledge Willetts' concerns and say they are already weighing whether or not to make the use of Galileo services compulsory.
“The Americans are doing it; the Russians are doing it. The question is still open, and once we have your opinions, we will deliver,” says Diego Canga Fano, Tajani's head of cabinet.
Aside from regulatory concerns, Tajani noted the looming threat that patent rights could pose for new Galileo ground-segment technologies, alluding to an intellectual property dispute that could interfere with the EC's desire to establish a satellite-terminal manufacturing industry in Europe.
“We are working with the authorities involved to find a solution to the patent issue,” Tajani told the conference, emphasizing that the EC would not allow intellectual property issues to complicate development of Galileo receivers.
Another challenge for the EC this year is reconciling the fact that it is a civil organization that owns and operates space-based assets with potential military applications. For example, Weissenberg says the EC still has not yet determined from the EU's 28 member states how much and what kind of use they plan for Galileo's Public Regulated Service (PRS), which resembles the encrypted military M-code signals being placed on the GPS constellation that will be made available to NATO allies and perhaps other nations.
Weissenberg says development of a new PRS access policy is underway as the EC seeks to maximize use of Galileo first and foremost within the EU, and then potentially outside.
Canga Fano says the EC is seeing growing interest in Galileo beyond Europe, notably from countries seeking alternatives to GPS. “They are confronted with the choice—rely only on GPS or be independent,” he says.
For Copernicus, the first fully European Earth-observation system comprising a network of ground assets and dedicated Earth-observation satellites, some services are up and running. The EC has budgeted €3.8 billion for Copernicus through 2020, but the project is already offering free applications in the areas of land-monitoring and emergency management, with four additional services to follow, including atmosphere and marine monitoring, climate-change observation and security applications.
However, while Copernicus has obvious benefits for the EC's non-defense purposes, its security dimension continues to cause visible discomfort among EU politicians. “There is some hesitation from a number of organizations, including the European Parliament, about taking into account the defense aspect of space programs,” says Arnaud Danjean, chairman of the European Parliament's subcommittee on security and defense, commenting on the rebranding of Copernicus, until recently known as the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program. “The security aspect of Copernicus is still really a research project. It hasn't yet become operational.”
Weissenberg admits that the EC has yet to identify a need for Copernicus security services. But in the meantime, he suggests that support for its military application could come from nations in need of maritime surveillance capabilities, particularly Greece, which will hand over the European Union Council presidency to Italy in July.
“Maritime surveillance is a political priority for Italy and Greece, but without the support from satellites, there is no efficient maritime surveillance within the EU,” Weissenberg says. Both nations have a strong interest in the kind of coastal-monitoring capabilities Copernicus satellites offer, he adds, such as the Sentinel 1A radar imaging spacecraft slated to launch this spring.
In the meantime, the EC has funded a handful of low-level maritime surveillance studies in support of Copernicus security applications, including a 30-month project dubbed Dolphin that is exploring new algorithms for processing satellite radar and optical images to improve vessel detection. A similar project, the Simulator for Moving Target Indicator System (Simtisys), would help European operators integrate space-borne radar data coming from different platforms.
“The security and defense applications of Galileo and Copernicus are fairly obvious,” says Danjean. “But there is a continuing need for vigilance, and to recall the security and defense aspects of our space policy.”