Europe’s Galileo satellite-navigation system cleared an important financial obstacle in late October that put the program back on track to build out the planned ground network in Europe and construct an initial group of satellites.

The key milestones in the coming 12 months for Galileo include:

– The launch of two Galileo test satellites, the first in December and the second in early 2006. Both are needed to protect the radio frequencies that European governments reserved with the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations affiliate that governs satellite slots and broadcast frequencies.

– The signing of a contract with a private-sector consortium that will manage Galileo as a profit-making business. The consortium submitted a first formal proposal for what is called the Galileo concession in late October to the Galileo Joint Undertaking, a government body created to negotiate the contract. The 20-year concession is expected to be signed by mid-2006.

– A formal agreement among the biggest government shareholders in Galileo — Germany, France, Italy, Britain and Spain — on where Galileo’s operating headquarters, control centers and other ground installations will be located. This has proved to be a more important issue than Galileo backers expected. It was disagreements about how best to resolve those issues that blocked progress on the ground system for a year and added uncalculated costs to the program’s already stretched schedule.

Galileo is designed to be a constellation of 30 satellites operating in medium-Earth orbit with most of the attributes of the U.S. Global Positioning System, (GPS). Unlike GPS, however, Galileo will be civilian-owned and operated. The European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Union’s executive commission — specifically, the European Union Transport Directorate — are dividing the costs of Galileo’s design and development, including the test satellites, four initial spacecraft and the system’s ground network.

The private sector will be financing two-thirds of the estimated $2.5 billion in Galileo deployment costs, and will be charging users for at least some Galileo services while retaining a core free service.

The next key date for Galileo is the scheduled Dec. 26 launch of the first of two Galileo test satellites. The first of them, named Giove-A, is nearing final testing at the European Space Agency’s Estec technology center in Noordwijk, Netherlands, and is scheduled for launch in late December aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.

Giove-A was built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) of Guildford, England, under a contract valued at 28 million euros ($33.6 million). SSTL hopes to use the work as a springboard for future business by demonstrating the performance of this new Surrey satellite platform.

Giove-A also will demonstrate several Galileo technologies in orbit including rubidium clocks and simultaneous use of two signal-transmission channels.

The Giove-B satellite to be launched in the spring of 2006 will duplicate many of the Giove-A functions — and secure the frequencies in the event of a Giove-A failure — in addition to testing passive hydrogen maser clock and three-channel transmissions.

SSTL announced Nov. 14 that Giove-A testing was proceeding smoothly.

However much benefit SSTL may draw from the performance of the Giove-A spacecraft, the company is unlikely to get much further Galileo work and is almost certain to be excluded from any major role in building the 30-satellite constellation.

SSTL Managing Director Sir Martin Sweeting said SSTL has no illusions about carving out a future niche in Galileo’s contractor network. SSTL is not a shareholder in Galileo Industries S.A. of Brussels, which is building the second demonstration satellite and is also the announced contractor for the four initial spacecraft in the constellation.

Once the Galileo concession contract is signed, the consortium running Galileo will be free to select its own contractors in Europe — and for the launch vehicles, even beyond Europe. But government and industry officials agree that Galileo Industries — whose member companies also are involved in the concession bid — is all but certain to get the work.

Sweeting said Nov. 7 that while the Giove-A satellite will be launched into a circular Earth orbit at 23,616 kilometers, the platform will be adapted by SSTL to serve geostationary communications satellite missions. For small-satellite specialist SSTL, this is a new market.

ESA’s Industrial Policy Committee on Oct. 28 freed up the 950 million euros in resources the agency needed to sign an umbrella contract with Galileo Industries for the In-Orbit Validation phase of the project. This includes four additional satellites and the Galileo ground network.

Giuseppe Viriglio, director of ESA’s telecommunications and navigation program, said a final contract covering the launch of the four additional satellites will await a resolution of the governmental dispute over whose territory will play host to what Galileo facilities.

Viriglio said a contract with Galileo Industries should be signed by the end of the year now that an agreement has been reached on all other aspects of the In-Orbit Validation contract, including which companies will build different on board components.

For this stage of Galileo, ESA has been operating under its habitual geographic-return policy. Contracts must be distributed to companies located in all ESA governments that are contributing to the program in strict proportion to each government’s financing level. The European Union does not operate under these rules. The extent to which the Galileo concession manager will need to stick to ESA’s rules remains unclear.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.