European transport ministers have given

what they said is

final approval of the Galileo satellite navigation project, agreeing to make system procurement competitive wherever possible and overcoming Spanish objections over work-share distribution.

Meeting Nov. 29 in Brussels, Belgium, European Union transport ministers set the broad outlines of how Galileo’s development would be conducted, with the European Space Agency (ESA) acting as technical program manager. With the 2.4 billion euros ($3.56 billion) necessary to complete Galileo made available by European finance ministers and the European Parliament Nov. 23, the transport ministers had only to decide issues of system management and the level of competition to provide the Galileo satellites, launchers, and ground facilities.

As has been the case in the past on this program, finding the money proved to be easier than finding a consensus on the location of Galileo ground facilities.

In what European government officials said was an unprecedented act, transport ministers used their legal right to force issues to conclusion through a qualified majority of the 27 European member nations. The vote on the complete Galileo package was 26-1. Spain, the lone holdout, demanded that a third Galileo control center – the other two are in Italy and Germany – be placed in Madrid.

European officials were continuing to negotiate a compromise with Spain late

Nov. 30 in an attempt to give the endorsement the added weight of unanimity. But European Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot said during a late-night press briefing Nov. 29 that with or without Spanish agreement, Galileo is

now fully approved.

As was the case in the Nov. 23 decision by European finance ministers and the European Parliament, the transport ministers’ endorsement was notable for the absence of many of the arguments used over the years by the project’s backers.

Gone were all references to Galileo’s job-creating possibilities – proponents had said 100,000 new jobs in Europe would result. Also absent was any promise that Galileo would one day be a profit-making business, an assertion that was once considered a pillar of the project.

Instead, European government officials now say Galileo is justified on the sole basis of European autonomy in space-based global positioning, navigation and timing.

“Space navigation is really an indication of our power among the nations of the world,” Barrot said during the Nov. 29 briefing.

During a Nov. 23 briefing, KyostiVirrankoski, who led the European Parliament’s debate on the 2008 European Commission budget, said: “For the European Parliament, our absolute priority was Galileo. We had to decide whether to continue this project or not. Fortunately we were able to reach an agreement … so that Europe is not dependent on American, Russian or Chinese systems, but has a system of its own.”

European government and industry officials said a request for bids from prospective Galileo contractors would be issued by mid-2008, with a final contract to be signed by the end of 2008.

European Satellite Navigation Industries, a consortium of large space-hardware companies that had been formed at the request of European governments to build the entire Galileo network, will be disbanded in the coming weeks. Its component parts, including ThalesAlenia Space, Astrium Satellites and a consortium of Spanish companies, will be permitted to bid separately for one or more of the six Galileo work packages.

To ensure that the benefits of competition are realized, no single company or group will be allowed as prime contractor for more than two of the six work packages, which cover system engineering, ground infrastructure, ground control, satellite construction, launch services and operations.

Satellites will be ordered from one or two prime contractors, with delivery expected within three years of the contract award. Launches of the 26 spacecraft are expected to occur at a rate of one or two per month, on average, depending on whether Europe’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 is favored over medium-lift vehicles such as the Russian Soyuz. Europe’s Arianespace consortium operates the Ariane 5 and versions of the Soyuz launched from the European spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana.

The ministers said at least two launchers should be used for Galileo, or even more “if possible.” Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said in a Nov. 30 interview that he was “very happy with the outcome of this.”

If the schedule holds, the full 26-satellite Galileo constellation could be operational by the end of 2013. The approved program also includes Europe’s Egnos system, which uses small payloads on commercial geostationary satellites to verify the accuracy of the U.S. GPS satellite navigation system, similar to GPS-overlay networks in place in the United States, Japan and India.

European governments already have spent about 1.5 billion euros on Galileo, and another 1 billion euros previously had been set aside for the project. With the addition of the 2.4 billion euros now made available, Galileo currently is budgeted at 4.9 billion euros through 2013.

That figure is likely to grow by perhaps 350 million euros in early 2008 following negotiations between the ESA and European industry on the final costs of a Galileo-preparation contract, already under way, that includes the production of four test satellites.