Galileo, Galileo...Tony Fyler 4 comments
Ahhh, Europe. Such a glorious concept - nations working in economic harmony for the good of all. And yet, on times, such a horrendous, back-biting, medieval, bureaucratically incompetent application, it just makes you want to weep, or laugh yourself sick, or hit someone's head against a wall. Probably your own.
Take Galileo, for instance.
Galileo the man was in many ways the father of modern science. He knocked off the proof of pendulums' motion in a handful of years, had, I gather, more revolutionary insights into the laws of the universe in two months than anyone else in the history of humanity had in a lifetime (and yes, that includes the likes of Einstein, Darwin, and Newton - although Newton was so secretive you can never entirely be sure), and stood by his experimental convictions in the face of staunch opposition from church forces, culminating in his house arrest for the last few years of his life. In the annals of science, he's got to rank up there with the big boys, and apart from anything else, it's safe to say that Galileo Got Things Done.
So when the European Union decided to develop its own version of GPS, they cast around for a name for it, a European name that would speak of the very best of scientific endeavour in space-related fields, and quite naturally, they landed on Galileo. I gather Newton was a bit pissed about the whole thing, but the point about being dead is no-one has to pay you any mind.
Now, GPS, as I'm sure we all know, is made up of a constellation of satellites orbiting the Earth, a network of ground-based stations and a vast number of receivers. Your in-car navigation system obviously has one - it's what picks up the signals from the satellite and, after translation, more or less tells you where you are. Your cell phone's probably got one too by now. GPS receivers are cheap bits of silicon, and they're being stuck into everything. GPS is pretty damn good at determining position, but it's also extremely good at deteremining what time it is, so a lot of ground-based infrastructure's now run on GPS time - the US stock market? Run by GPS timing signals. The US energy grid? Run by GPS timing signals. Landline phone networks...mobile phone networks...you name it, it's probably run on GPS timing signals. Not to mention of course every plane that's in the sky, every big ship that's out there, every oil well, every ambulance and fire truck...we're living in a GPS world. (More scary stories about that another time...)
So if it's that good, why in the name of sanity would Europe want its own version? Well of course, GPS was developed first and foremost by the US Military. When it first arrived on the scene, it was 'sort of' scrambled for everyone but the US Military, in a move called - with a gorgeously American turn of phrase - 'Selective Availability'. During Bill Clinton's time in the White House, he switched off Selective Availability, and good quality GPS signals became available to everyone, military and civilian, all over the world, and the GPS world we live in gradually came to pass. At which point, having shown little prior interest, the governments of Europe pricked up their ears and said 'Hang on a minute...they've turned off Selective Availability, and now our world depends on GPS. What's to stop them turning ON Selective Availability again, and screwing us all six ways from Sunday?' Gotta love that attitude of global trust, haven'tcha?
And so they began to draw up plans for Galileo - the European version of GPS. They began this work in 2001, with plans to get a 30 satellite constellation up and running by 2007. In 2007, without so much as a trial satellite in the atmosphere, negotiations collapsed. Most of the European nations wanted a piece of the Galileo action, and neither national governments, nor the companies involved, could come to any agreement on funding, work distribution, profitability (did I mention, they wanted to make this a system where the end user - that's you and me - would PAY to use Galileo)...or indeed anything else. Everyone concerned got a rap on the knuckles from the European Commission, and for a while it looked like Galileo was a dead project. But oh no - it was saved at the eleventh hour, by diverting funds from the EU agriculture budget (you can imagine the fun had by Euro-journos with that one, can't you? Cows Rescue Galileo...). Some 2.1 billion Euros of agriculture funding were earmarked for the project, which ultimately would be drawn from national taxpayers. And so the process began again. Deadlines came, and deadlines went. The idea was now that the system would be up and running by 2009.
In 2009, just as it was about to lose the right to its frequencies, Europe managed to get two test satellites up, essentially to keep the project alive. Dealines stretched again. The end of 2010 was the new deadline to get the full constellation up.
Since those two test satellites were launched, nothing else has gone into orbit to replace them. The deadline has continued to stretch, to 2011, 2012, 2014, and now 2015...
It's worth noting that during the same time, the US has begun a total revamp of GPS, but what's more, the Russians, who also started work on a newly revamped satellite network in 2001, will by the end of this year have a worldwide network of coverage, akin to GPS, for their GLONASS system. The Chinese, who only got into the game a handful of years ago, now aim to have a worldwide system up and runing by 2020, and show every sign of being able to achieve this goal.
Can I say again...It's 2010, one year after the second deadline for a full constellation, and Europe has how many full satellites up there? Not one, that's how many. It has two tester satellites in orbit, and one of them is now way beyond its expected operational lifespan, and so could go wrong practically at any minute.
Oh and here's the kicker. Just a week ago, on the same day that our new government here in the UK announced swingeing cuts to public sector jobs and significant tax rises, the EU popped round for a chat. It turns out that the whole of the agriculture budget cash allocated in 2007, and more (3.4 billion Euros to be exact), has been spent already, preparing four 'in-orbit validation vessels' - no, these still aren't the proper Galileo satellites. 2015 now looks like a dream, rather than a viable deadline, oh and by the way, could we have another 1.5 billion Euros for Galileo please, we're out of money...
I swear, were he still alive, Galileo would be petitioning the European Union right about now to have his name removed from anything to do with this disastrous, farcical project. Oi, Newton, you still wanna have a go at getting these people to work together? Good luck, mate!