Saturday, March 17, 2007

Desperately Seeking Galileo: An American Perspective on a European Problem

We here on the western side of the Atlantic are sometimes bemused and rarely astounded at the antics of our European colleagues, particularly perched here on the bleachers as we are with our picnic hampers and cans of Budweiser.

In particularly we've watched as Airbus has faltered in an attempt to determine whether as fractious a combine as Airbus can ever succeed in a project as ambitious and star crossed as the A380 has proved to be, and what effect it will have on the future of whatever Airbus becomes. The jury's far from rendering a verdict on the question and much remains to be proven, but the A380 may well prove to be the answer to a question that it wasn't worth asking in the first place. Time will surely tell, and hindsight is always 20/20.

In our view the A380 program is symptomatic of a European compulsion to outdo the hated Yanquis in anything and everything whatever the cost, from matters of business, cuisine and philosophy to deciding the weightier questions of what we've all collectively done to the planet. Nothing warms the European (and particularly our French colleagues') hearts so much as the sure knowledge that the hated Yanquis are a bunch of cultural Philistines and low grade morons.

For our part as Americans, we take peevish delight in deflating the overblown egos of our friends in Europe as only rude frontiersmen and country bumpkins might when seeing our citified friends step off the stage from Carson City and land face first on the manure heap. I suspect that the concept of "Eff 'em if they can't take a joke!" is a uniquely American one.

Thus it was that I stumbled over the EU Referendum blog and its article entitled "The Airbus of Space" that brought me back up to speed on another manifestation of this distressing syndrome, and that is the Galileo Project. The EU Referendum blog is an excellent site and I commend it to your kind attention.

All navigation is premised on a principle of triangulation. Whether it was Polynesian mariners reading reflective waves from atolls below the horizon or the merchant seaman with his sextant and clock, the idea was the same. If you can take a bearing on a couple of known positions, you can figure out where you are on the planet. If you can do this with three or more known positions, you can get pretty accurate.

This principle took a quantum leap when commercialized marine radio became a reality about a hundred years ago. In 1916, Dr. Frederick Kolster of the U.S. Bureau of Standards patented the direction finding loop antenna which advanced the science of RDF, or radio direction finding. Triangulation became a less complicated matter when reference was made to onshore stations.

Technological innovations in radio, space flight and computer technology all came together in the second half of the last century. Computer technology coupled with RDF gave us systems like LORAN, VLF, and Omega, but these depended on shore based stations under uncertain political regimes and they were rendered obsolete by the advent of GPS, or Global Positioning System.

Developed by the US Department of Defense, GPS depends on a system of satellites in medium earth orbit that transmit information on position and time to a user's receiver, which then can deliver positional information with great accuracy. This information may be used by a pilot or sailor, or it can be used to guide precision munitions or perform mapping functions.

GPS is free to everyone who can purchase a receiver, but many have thought that having the Pentagon with its thumb on the switch is a bad thing.

Particularly those in Europe.

Particularly those in France.

Particularly those in France who would like to sell all weather precision guided weaponry to all comers with a plump billfold without having to genuflect toward Washington and hence Tel Aviv.

And that is where the Galileo Project came in. It is pretty much the same idea as GPS or Glonass with a few bells and whistles added and a gloss of civilian control. Of course it is 'better', although the issue of navigating a vehicle to within 5 meters as opposed to 15 meters is but a talking point for most of the world.

From the force de frappe to the A380 to Ariane to Galileo, the French have had a knack for coming up with grand schemes like this and dragging the rest of Europe along kicking and screaming. Whether the project makes any real sense, can ever make any money, or serves any purpose is simply not relevant when overweening national pride is at stake.

Galileo, it was said, would be more accurate than GPS or Glonass (the Russian satnav system), not subject to Pentagon veto in time of war, and free to all. Galileo, it is said, would be a political statement of independence from the yanqui Philistines.

Galileo was to have 30 satellites in orbit that would offer three levels of service on three distinct frequencies.

Open service would allow for positional accuracy of 4 meters horizontally and 8 meters vertically. If the receiver grabs only one of the bands, accuracy under Open System will be 15 meters horizontally and 35 meters vertically. Commercial service for a fee would offer accuracy to within 1 meter in any direction, utilizing a third frequency. A secure system, allegedly safe from jamming would be available to security, law enforcement, military and air transport control authorities.

There were supposed to be 30 Galileo satellites in orbit by 2010 but the timetable is in disarray.

At this point, the project's up in the air. Pravda reports that there is an agreement for cooperation between the civilian Galileo project and Russia's military Glonass satellite navigation system. However, the best guess is that the future of Galileo is up in the air, according to an atricle the other day in the Financial Express.

How it'll play out is anyone's guess, but it may be another example of the pitfalls of defining yourself by what you think the other fellow's done.

Stay tuned.


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