Editorial: SatNav Gets More Complicated

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  Space News Business

Editorial: SatNav Gets More Complicated

posted: 05 July 2006
01:44 pm ET


Editorial:

Nobody, least of all the Europeans, should be surprised that China is taking steps to develop a global satellite navigation system that potentially could compromise or complicate operations of Europe’s planned Galileo system and perhaps the future U.S. GPS 3 system as well.

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,85.500,0,” “,)> China might have seen a need to deploy its own satellite-based positioning, timing and navigation system under any circumstances for strategic reasons. But the confusion surrounding China’s status as a Galileo partner, the apparent result of haphazard planning by those managing the project , likely is a motivating factor.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the European Union and European Space Agency (ESA), the organizations responsible for managing Galileo, did not fully think through the implications of outside participation in the program.

China and Israel have joined the Galileo program as partners, while several other non-European countries — including India — have been negotiating a potential partnership role. China already has invested some $6 million and committed another $250 million, which it would spend largely on development of Galileo technologies, both on the ground and aboard the satellites.

Now, however, China’s role in Galileo is no more certain, perhaps even less so, than when Beijing began negotiating its participation several years ago. That China will never be a full partner in decisions affecting Galileo is a given. Unclear at this point is whether the money, time and effort China invested in its attempt to carve out a Galileo role have all gone to waste.

It has long been understood that the Galileo Joint Undertaking, the government body responsible for negotiating industrial and non-European participation in the program, would be dissolved once the terms of the Galileo concession contract were settled. That is slated to happen this year.

Unfortunately, there is no mechanism for making China’s agreement with the Galileo Joint Undertaking binding on its successor organization, the GNSS Supervisory Authority. In other words, the deal could virtually disappear into thin air once the new governing body takes over.

Meanwhile, Galileo’s European partners seem to be having second thoughts about Chinese participation. Some are increasingly uncomfortable with the notion that China would have unfettered access to Galileo technologies, and thus could pry away a significant portion of the tens of thousands of jobs that have been promised in the production of Galileo ground-system and user equipment.

For China, one reasonable conclusion to draw from all this is that the European Union and ESA simply haven’t gotten their act together. But Beijing also might suspect that Europe brought China on board merely because it needed an ally in warding off any challenges to Galileo frequency allocations before the International Telecommunication Union.

Had Europe been unable to launch a Galileo demonstration satellite to begin using the assigned frequencies by June 2006, it would have risked losing its rights to the spectrum. With that possibility having now passed, China may well feel it is being jilted because its support is no longer needed.

It may be that China was unrealistically expecting to become a full partner in Galileo, with access to the Public Regulated Service — the encrypted signal reserved exclusively for European government use. But until recently, Indian government officials were publicly voicing similar expectations. This suggests that Galileo officials were not entirely clear in defining the limits of non-European participation.

China’s planned Compass satellite navigation system is of concern to the Europeans because of the possibility that its signals will be superimposed on frequencies reserved for the Public Regulated Service. That would mean that if someone — presumably the United States — were to jam Compass, the Public Regulated Service also would be affected. There also is the possibility that China will overlay Compass signals on frequencies reserved for the GPS M-Code military signal.

Perhaps China is bluffing in an attempt to secure better terms as a Galileo partner. But the fact that China has signed a contract with a Swiss firm to purchase up to 20 atomic clocks — the heart of any satellite navigation system — argues otherwise.

Meanwhile, India in May disclosed plans to invest over $300 million in its own fully independent regional satellite navigation system. Together, these developments indicate that China and India, as their economic power and technical prowess grow, will be increasingly disinclined to accept second-class status in international space activities, especially those with strategic implications. And the world will get much more complicated as a result.