After a debacle that saw leading companies in European industry withdraw their planned investment over fears of cost overruns, the European Union's much-vaunted Galileo satellite navigation project appears to be getting a second lease of life.
The European Parliament this week approved a plan to put the constuction of the satellite network, which will compete with the United States' GPS system, out to tender. With no private industry investors on board, the project will now be paid for using €3.4 billion ($5.35 billion) in public funds through 2013.
Following Wednesday's vote, the final political hurdle has been cleared for Galileo. The EU will now seek bids for six aspects of the prestige project, including system planning, ground facilities, control systems, construction of satellites and launching the satellites into space. Individual firms will only be allowed to bid in a maximum of two areas, in order to prevent a situation where only a few companies are granted the majority of the contracts for the project. The bidding process also stipulates that small- to medium-sized businesses have to be included in the final construction and operation.
"This is an incredible opportunity for German companies," German Transportation Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee said Wednesday. "It will secure numerous jobs for Germany's high-tech sector." He is expected to hold a conference in the coming days for German companies interested in submitting bids for parts of the massive project.
"We've done it. Europe is putting its money where it's mouth is. And there will be broad opportunities for German industry," said Angelika Niebler of the conservative Christian Social Union party, who chairs the European Parliament's industrial affairs committee. In addition to German-operated ground control facilities, a considerable part of the satellite construction is expected to be done here.
The EU was forced to step in after a consortium of eight European firms withdrew investments out of fears the project's cost would spiral out of control. The pullout by Spain's AENA, France's Alcatel, pan-European aerospace giant EADS, Italy's Finmeccanica, Spain's Hispasat, London-based Inmarsat, Germany's TeleOp and France's Thales nearly caused the project to collapse. The new funding from Brussels comes largely from unused funds in the EU's massive agricultural budget.
EADS' Germany-based space services subsdiary, EADS Astrium, has already been involved in the construction of the GIOVE-B Galileo test satellite that is expected to be launched into orbit from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan on Sunday. GIOVE-B is the second of three test satellites being sent into orbit before the launch of the larger Galileo project.
Prior to the new bidding process, EADS Astrium had also been awarded contracts to construct four of the 30 total satellites planned for the Galileo constellation, which will be built at facilities in Germany, France, Spain and Great Britain. The space specialist OHB, which is based in the German city of Bremen, is also expected to submit a bid for the satellite segment.
"This is an opportunity for Bremen to position itself as the center of the European aerospace and space industry," said Helga Trüpel, a member of the Green Party in the European Parliament from the northern German port city. Bremen has established itself as an important site in the European aerospace business, with large Airbus and EADS plants.
Once in operation, Galileo is expected to deliver highly accurate geographical positioning data that can be used by cars and other transportation, by police and justice officials, customs, construction or even in emergency and rescue services. The German government has said it would prefer to use Galileo for civilian purposes, but other countries, including France, say they want it for their militaries. "There will be countless uses for (Galileo) that we haven't even thought of yet," said Angelika Niebler from the European Parliament's industrial affairs committee.