Galileo Constellation: The Independence of Europe

Named after the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei who first defined the notion of natural satellite, Galileo is Europe’s global navigation satellite system.

The system has been active since December 15, 2016 when the initial services became operational with the positioning of the first fifteen satellites. Subsequently, the number of satellites was gradually enlarged and it should be complete by the beginning of the 2020s when the 30 satellites of the constellation (including 24 operational and 6 spare) will be operational. As of March 4, 2020, 26 satellites have been launched and 22 are operational.

The idea of a European navigation system emerged in people’s minds during a forum in Brussels in 1998. Discussions revolved around a European positioning and navigation network. The project will finally be launched on May 26, 2003 with an agreement signed between the European Union and the European Space Agency. In 2005 and 2008, the GIOVE-A and GIOVE-B satellites were respectively placed in orbit. Their main objective was to test future technologies used by Galileo satellites but also to reserve the frequencies that will be utilized by the Galileo constellation. The first operational Galileo satellites were launched from 2011.

Galileo operational satellites use a dual frequency system and are positioned in three circular Medium Earth Orbit planes at an altitude of 23 222 kilometers and at an inclination of 56 degrees to the equator. Since each satellite has an atomic clock, the Galileo positioning system will have a precision between 1 and 2 meters while the precision of the American GPS is around 5 to 10 meters. Rescue services and professionals would even be able to benefit from a centimeter-precision if the conditions are ideal. However, with the exception of emergency services, this extraordinary precision will only be available for certain paid services.

The main objective of the Galileo positioning and navigation system is to offer Europe independence from the American GPS system. The GPS, or Global Positioning System, was developed by the American army, which in 1973 created the first satellite positioning system. Currently essential in our everyday life, this new technology was initially strictly reserved for the army before opening up to civilian applications in the 2000s.

The major problem is that the GPS system does not offer a guarantee of service. The United States may well decide to degrade or cut the signal to other countries. Used in many sectors, a deterioration or even a break in the service could have serious consequences.

Galileo is therefore a civil system whose funding is completely public: no private company was able to participate in the funding of the project. Consequently, the European Union is the sole owner of Galileo. Some countries, such as China, Norway and Switzerland, have contributed financially to the program while other countries have signed agreements with the European Union to be able to use Galileo.

The European Union is therefore gaining independence and sovereignty of the utmost importance, in the strategic areas of geo-tracking and time frames, particularly used for financial transactions and television. Galileo guarantees a quality threshold for critical applications in several sectors.

In reaction to this new independence and sovereignty of Europe, the United States attempted to have the project cancelled, both by preventing the use of Galileo by other countries and at the same time by directly preventing Europe to acquire its independence in the fields of satellites and telecommunications. In the end, the United States accepted the project and on June 26, 2004, the GPS-Galileo Agreement was signed. The agreement provides a framework for cooperation between the two entities and allows the coexistence of both GPS and Galileo.

Unlike the American GPS and Russian GLONASS systems, Galileo is under civilian control and provides extremely reliable positioning with high timing accuracy thanks to its new technology. Therefore Galileo will have many areas of application. The system is and will be used on a daily basis, with smartphones and connected cars for example. But the system will mainly be used by professionals. Indeed, it finds applications in emergency services, in the maritime, rail, air (to better control air traffic) and agricultural (used to maximize yields and optimize the use of fertilizers and herbicides) fields.

The European system seems set to become over the next few years the first navigation system used in the world, in particular thanks to the fact that chips used in new smartphones automatically choose the most precise positioning system. Currently, more than a billion smartphones are compatible with Galileo.

Given the success of Galileo, the European Commission has decided to accelerate the development of Galileo Next Generation whose second generation satellites are set to be launched in 2024. The renewal of the Galileo constellation will provide the services and capabilities offered by the current first generation but with a lot of improvements as well as new services and capabilities. Furthermore the second generation of Galileo satellites will be able to reconfigure its orbit to adapt to different needs.

The Galileo positioning and navigation system is a real success for the European Union, which shows its ability to be a leader in advanced technologies and that it does not have to depend on the United States. Through Galileo, we can observe the success of a precise and efficient positioning and navigation system resulting from public funding and collaboration of several countries.