(Bloomberg) -- Europe’s determination to build up its own, independent, tech infrastructure took a hit this week.
The European Union’s flagship technology project, the 10 billion-euro ($11 billion) Galileo satellite navigation system, went down for at least five days after a problem hit command centers in Italy and Germany. The outage caused no disruption because the EU economy -- not to mention its military -- could rely on existing systems, like the U.S.’s Global Positioning System.
But imagine the chaos if the U.S. infrastructure, which Europe is trying to wean itself off, hadn’t been available.
Galileo is designed to replace the U.S. system for Europe’s industries, individuals and armies. With self-driving cars, connected factories and 5G communications all close to deployment, having a reliable navigation system of its own will only become more important for the EU.
Operations were restored late Wednesday, said the EU Commission, which oversees the program. But the stigma remains.
U.S. President Donald Trump is preparing to create a Space Force, China has landed a robot on the far side of the Moon, and Russia is playing cat and mouse with its rivals’ military satellites. All the while, the EU is struggling to track the locations of its assets on Earth.
Relying on Rivals
“We were pretty surprised this happened because the system was conceived with two control centers," which are supposed to ensure sufficient back up, said Gianluca Marucco, an engineer at the Navigation Signal Analysis and Simulation, a research group based in Turin. "We need to learn the lesson and ensure the mistake is not repeated.”
Galileo is one of Europe’s biggest industrial ventures since Airbus in the 1970s.
It was conceived to end the EU’s reliance upon the GPS, built by the U.S. Defense Department to help troops and ships navigate. The U.S., Russia and China all have their own satellite navigation systems and could, in theory, shut off access for European users.
The outage didn’t create a blackout this time because user devices are able to switch to other countries’ functioning systems.
Galileo has been running a pilot service since 2016 and plans to be fully operational next year. By then it will have another four satellites to add to the 26 currently in orbit.
It is operated by SpaceOpal, a consortium between the German space agency DLR and Telespazio SpA. Telespazio in turn is a joint venture between defense companies Leonardo SpA of Italy and Thales of France.
The EU said last year it will earmark another 16 billion euros in its 2021-2027 budget for space, with most going to Galileo amid mounting concern about the creeping militarization of space.
President Emmanuel Macron announced July 14 that France will create its own space command to beef up its military presence in the Earth’s outer atmosphere. His decision was meant as a nudge for the EU to accelerate its own space programs to keep up with its geopolitical rivals.
“If the whole world had Galileo, the problem would have caused chaos,” said Marucco. "Fortunately, the international community set agreements to deploy and maintain more satellite navigation systems, to have backup in cases of outage of one of them.”
--With assistance from Alessandro Speciale.
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