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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 38 - July 2003   
 Europe's troubled seas
 Gutsy bacteria 
 The triumphs of a gene hunter
 Utopia on wheels

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Title  Galileo and GMES: Two vehicles of European ambitions

European space policy over the next few years will be centred largely on two ambitious projects. Both are rooted in the aim of achieving genuine independence in key fields dependent on a command of space: positioning (particularly crucial to the transport system), and control of Earth observation (essential for reasons of environmental management and security). 

The Nile Delta photographed by the Meris satellite.  ©ESA
The Nile Delta photographed by the Meris satellite.


The history of space is fundamentally dualistic. One of the most powerful motors for the development of many space applications has been military considerations, especially during the Cold War. 

It was in this 'Star Wars' climate – at its peak in the 1980s – that the two superpowers set up their respective navigation and positioning systems. Based on 'satellite constellations', the US Global Positioning System (GPS) and the Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass) continue to constantly scrutinise the entire surface of the globe. 

As the international situation eased in the 1990s, these tools began to be used for civil and commercial purposes. The services they provided proved to be of major importance, in particular for managing transport systems, but also in many other fields (customs, insurance, single judicial area, agricultural monitoring, etc.). 

Essential autonomy
Throughout this period, Europe – lacking a common vision of its defence and security – had few ambitions in this field. It was not until 1999 that the idea was hatched of giving the Union an autonomous capacity. The need for such a project, known as Galileo, was based on a number of considerations.

First of all, a positioning system is essential for regulating contemporary transport systems. The GPS and Glonass, however, continue to serve military needs before anything else – which, in case of crisis, take priority over any foreign civil clients. Galileo will also offer improved performance. Above all, European autonomy in this sector is a key element of a new independent European Defence and Security Policy (EDSP). 

At a cost of over 3 billion euro, Galileo is certainly a 'mega project'. It is based on launching some 30 satellites to an altitude of over 20 000 kilometres, coupled with a major terrestrial infrastructure. It was a long and sometimes laborious process to design the system and to set it up financially, on the basis of Union and ESA funding as well as that of a consortium of private partners. On 27 May this year, the firm and final decision was made to implement it and the system will be operational in 2008.    

Global monitoring
The second major ambition concerns the deployment and integration of Earth observation capacities within an increasingly operational and coherent global system. At present, a multitude of satellites is continuously scrutinising the Earth. These transmit a mass of information which is used increasingly for the purposes of environmental policy, town and country planning, meteorology, the prevention of natural or industrial risks, and support for civil protection operations in the event of disaster. In future, such satellite information will also be important for managing the peacemaking and peacekeeping operations the Union plans to undertake as part of its common defence policy.

This mass of information is, however, particularly difficult to manage and to use because of the many sources and the lack of any data integration or standardisation. The Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) initiative is one of the major space projects in which the Union and ESA are coordinating co-operation between the many public and private players involved in the systems of collecting, processing and exploiting satellite observations of the Earth. The aim is for Europe to have, by 2008, a coherent, efficient and operational system able to exploit to the maximum the growing uses and services made possible by the space tool. 

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