SatNav: The Space Race Circa 2007

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 9/23/2007 04:20:00 PM
Two of the participants in the new space race should be familiar to all from their Apollo and Sputnik exploits: the US and Russia. However, they've now been joined by the EU and China in a different sort of space race. These countries are competing to launch global positioning systems (GPS). As a marketing ploy, the EU's Galileo project was designed to lure away customers from the US system by reiterating that the US would curtail use of its system for military purposes should the need arise. Just recently, however, the US has said that it will not limit use of its GPS for that reason, so users can take comfort. It all adds up to an intense four-way race in the GPS stakes. Never forget, of course, the strongly "dual-use" nature of these systems. From the Financial Times:

Space may be a big place but is it big enough to hold the coming-out parties of a new generation of world powers’ satellite navigation systems? The day before the European Union announced the relaunch of its planned rival to the US’s global positioning system, Washington sabotaged the launch pad by declaring it would make its own system more user-friendly.

Galileo, already troubled by internal EU feuding on how it would be funded, suddenly had one less reason to exist. Its proponents have long argued it was necessary because GPS, which has 98 per cent of the satellite navigation market, was designed for military purposes and can be disabled for civilian use in time of war.

US President George W. Bush, however, announced a third generation of GPS would not be equipped with such technology. The US has already pledged not to use such technology but the latest offer deprives it of even the option to do so. The White House said it was “eliminating a source of uncertainty in GPS performance that has been of concern to civil GPS users worldwide”. The Americans also hope to eliminate Galileo, claims Lieven Quoidbach, vice-president of Navteq, the US satellite mapping company. “They are desperate to keep their monopoly. It is kindergarten behaviour,” he said.

Other emerging big powers are also building expensive space toys of their own. China plans worldwide coverage with its Beidou satellite system. Although the details remain imprecise, the project is clearly of the highest importance. “Space technology reflects a nation’s overall power and is an important facet of the modernisation of national defence,” Sun Laiyan, chief of the China National Space Administration, said in May.

Meanwhile, a resurgent Russia, rich with oil and gas revenues, has begun spending heavily – 12bn roubles ($480m, €340m, £240m) this year – to improve its ageing Glonass military system. “In the 21st century, the state’s accessibility to a modern global navigation satellite system is just as important in determining a country’s [position] as possessing nuclear weapons or strategic reserves of energy resources,” said Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s first deputy prime minister, who is driving the project.

“This is a geopolitical ambition for Russia,” said Andrei Ionin, an aerospace expert at Moscow’s Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, which is linked to the Russian defence ministry. “If you don’t have your own navigation system the key to high precision weaponry is not in your hands.”

Many doubt whether Russia will meet its target of Glonass providing full global coverage with 24 satellites in orbit by 2011. It has 11 satellites in orbit, providing coverage for just under half of Russia, but they are dogged by unreliability. “They’re like the Zhiguli car,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military expert, referring to the Soviet-era cars known as Ladas outside Russia. “They need to be taken in for repairs a great deal.”

India has agreed to help Moscow design better satellites. While all systems stress their civilian use – Glonass receivers are being installed in trains – it is more likely they will be driven by military needs.

Even though EU governments have yet to agree a plan to spend €2.7bn ($3.8bn, £1.9bn) to complete the 30-satellite Galileo, France and Germany insist on its importance as a guarantee of independence from the US.

Jacques Barrot, European transport commissioner, has said Galileo would not be for “military use but will have military users”. Michel Praet, of the European Space Agency, said the EU must spend more on space: “If you don’t have space in your tool basket, you will be relegated to the second tier in global competition: in military, economic and research terms.”

The business benefits are not in doubt, said Mr Quoidbach, citing uses for mobile telephones and driver safety.