Europe’s plan to stop relying on U.S. satellites for navigation suffered a huge setback Wednesday due to computer glitches.
The glitches caused nine internal clocks to fail on several satellites belonging to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Galileo program. Galileo is supposed to be the European Union’s replacement for the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS), but it is already 17 years and $24 billion behind schedule. The program has been plagued by delays, technical difficulties and budget cuts and has almost been cancelled several times.
The ESA admits that nine different atomic clocks across the project’s 18 satellites have failed. Due to the nature of these clocks, it is unlikely that they can be remotely fixed. Accurate atomic clocks are absolutely essential to the operation of these satellites, as timing how long it takes for a signal to arrive on Earth is essential to locating where an object is.
Galileo began as a public-private partnership in 2006, but the EU outright nationalized it after the project fell behind schedule. However, the EU couldn’t pay for the system, leaving it “in deep crisis” for years and subject to $755 million in budget cuts. Galileo was only saved by an investment of $302 million from China.
The European Commission solved the project’s budget issues by slashing the number of satellites definitively planned from 28 to 22, and delayed Galileo’s scheduled activation date to 2013. The cost of Galileo to taxpayers had ballooned from a little less than $3 billion to $24 billion.
Soaring costs ultimately led to Galileo’s activation date being pushed back again to late 2016. Currently, the project only has 18 satellites in orbit, but needs 30 to become fully operational. Galileo’s reason for being is to provide an alternative to the U.S. military-controlled GPS and rival the American platform. However, Galileo currently needs to have its signal strength artificially boosted by the very GPS satellites it was supposed to be an alternative to.
Galileo’s supporters claim it will be more accurate than GPS, but this is uncertain. “GPS allows a train to know which area it is in — Galileo will allow it to identify the track it is on,” Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of the French space agency, told the Taipei Times.
Early test results indicate Galileo may actually be less accurate than GPS, as it is only capable of locating 77 percent of simulated distress locations pinpointed within 1.2 miles, and 95 percent within three miles.
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