European Union transport ministers on June 9 began debating what role, if any, China should have in Europe’s Galileo global satellite navigation project even as details emerged on a Chinese system that would appear to offer at least some of the same services, European government and industry officials said.
One official familiar with the ministers’ meeting said a consensus appears to be emerging that China should be barred from becoming a full member of the government body, called the Supervisory Authority, that will own Galileo and oversee its use.
“We want to have a relationship with the Chinese, but we cannot let them join the Supervisory Authority. I think there is agreement on that much,” said one European government official. European transport ministries are the principal financial backers of Galileo, alongside the 17-nation European Space Agency (ESA).
The Supervisory Authority will assume control of the Galileo project starting in 2007 and will have at least some oversight authority for Galileo’s Public Regulated Service, or PRS, the encrypted, government-only Galileo signal that will not be open to governments outside Europe.
China is one of several non-European countries , including India, that have expressed interest in taking a role in Galileo’s global commercial development but also have sought the right to use the PRS service.
In recent weeks, Chinese authorities have told their European counterparts that China would be expanding its current three-satellite Beidou navigation system into a global constellation called Compass.
Chinese officials have further said that they may superimpose Compass’ encrypted military service on radio frequencies to be used for Galileo’s PRS and the U.S. Global Positioning System’s future military service, called M-code.
Overlaying the Compass signal on the Galileo PRS or GPS M-code would mean that any attempt to jam one system would automatically jam the other.
Rainer Grohe, executive director of the Galileo Joint Undertaking, which is negotiating Galileo partnerships on behalf of the 25-nation European Union, said his organization has raised concerns about Compass with the Chinese government — especially given that China is a partner in the Galileo Joint Undertaking. Several Chinese nationals work at the organization in Brussels.
“This is an issue for us,” Grohe said here June 12 during the 8th European Interparliamentary Space Conference, a gathering of European members of parliament that this year included representatives from Russia and China.
“We have raised our concerns with the Chinese and have been told that Compass is more of a political issue than a commercial one,” Grohe said. “The Chinese say their Compass work will not affect their role in Galileo because Compass is a military system and Galileo is commercial. But we want to know what they have in mind with Compass, and we are waiting for further discussions on this.”
Li Yuanzheng, a member of the Chinese National People’s Congress, led the Chinese delegation to the meeting. Li said one of China’s goals is “to establish an independent satellite navigation and positioning system and [to] set up a satellite navigation and positioning application industry.”
Pressed on the Compass project, Li said China’s need for timing and navigation services was big enough to support the national Compass effort and a Chinese role in Europe’s Galileo project.
Several European government and industry officials have speculated that China was wielding the threat of a Compass clash with Galileo’s PRS to win access to PRS.
But while the Chinese have said little about Compass’ orbital and signal architecture, they have taken steps to secure at least some key Compass components in Europe.
The Chinese government has contracted with Temex Neuchatel Time of Neuchatel, Switzerland, for the purchase of 18-20 rubidium atomic clocks for a satellite system that appears to be intended for medium Earth orbit, according to Temex Chief Executive Pascal Rochet. “From information we have from end users about the radiation environment they expect, it would appear to be a 21-satellite constellation,” Rochet said.
Temex is building the rubidium and the higher-accuracy passive hydrogen maser atomic clocks for the Galileo system.
In a June 15 interview, Rochet said Temex is under contract to deliver rubidium atomic clocks similar to one designed in the mid-1990s by the company for Russia’s Radioastron science satellite, which is still in development.
Rochet stressed that, as a component supplier, Temex is not necessarily privy to the details of the Compass project beyond what was needed for Swiss authorities to approve the clocks’ export to China.
“The Swiss government has a very clear policy,” Rochet said. “If a nation or a technology is the subject of an embargo by Wassanar or by the United Nations, we will not proceed with an export. That is not the case with this technology.”
Wassanar, shorthand for the Wassanar Arrangement of Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies, is an agreement by 32 nations to coordinate technology-export policy.
Rochet said the rubidium units ordered by China were about three times less accurate than the rubidium clocks to be used on the Galileo satellites . Temex is building two rubidium clocks and two passive hydrogen maser clocks for each Galileo satellite. The maser technology, developed under contract to ESA, remains ESA property and cannot be exported without ESA approval, Rochet said.
The rubidium clocks were designed in-house at Temex.
Rochet said it is his understanding that some 80 Chinese scientists have been working on atomic-clock technology for the past five or six years. “They have produced products with some deficiencies, but within three or four years they are likely to reach the same state as we are today with rubidium,” Rochet said.