Ill-starred career for Galileo constellation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 November, 2004, 12:00am

The omens are lousy. The 16th century astronomer Galileo recanted his theory about the Earth orbiting the Sun and died in misery. The Nasa Galileo space probe ventured too close to Jupiter and was crushed, melted and swallowed by the planet's atmosphere last year.

The next Galileo - a planned non-American constellation of 30 satellites - is already in trouble because the US military is prepared to take 'irreversible action' against it, whatever that means.

Even by the standards of the organisation that coined the phrase 'collateral damage', 'irreversible action' seems evasive.

In plain English, 'irreversible action' signifies something breathtakingly simple: blowing Galileo out of the sky.

Before the Americans take this step, let's clarify what Galileo may have to offer. Quite a lot, according to Xinhua, which claims the hi-tech necklace will vie with, or outshine, the existing United States global positioning system (GPS). Galileo's navigational 'fix' will supposedly be accurate to within one metre. In contrast, according to Space, the Pentagon's system is accurate only to 100 metres for civilians and 22 metres for the military.

Scheduled to begin its precarious career in 2008, the European Union and the European Space Agency will launch Galileo to tap the growing GPS market. As with its established rival, Galileo is all about timekeeping.

It works on the principle that you can pinpoint your position on this planet by gauging how long a satellite signal takes to reach you. The 60 clocks on Galileo will measure this with an accuracy of better than one billionth of a second in an hour.

That presumably beats its comparatively unfocused rival. Either way, France, Germany, Russia, Israel and China have embraced the charms of the smart, celestial clock. India looks set to be next.

So is Galileo entirely benign and no more to be feared than Andromeda or the Southern Cross?

From the perspective of Washington, as surely as the Earth follows the Sun, Galileo will be put to 'strategic military use'.

In other words, Galileo will become a spy-ship that exposes all America's military secrets and enables precision targeting of every last barracks and bunker.

According to a leaked US Air Force document written in August, Peter Teets, undersecretary of the US Air Force, wrote: 'What will we do 10 years from now when American lives are put at risk because an adversary chooses to leverage the global positioning system of perhaps the Galileo constellation to attack American forces with precision?'

The statement brings to mind the fear-infused exchanges that marked the cold war. Businesses that invest in whatever services Galileo finally offers may come to be seen as taking a stand against the US.

But the controversy surrounding Galileo may fade and fizzle. Come 2008, a dove with a soft spot even for France and Germany could conceivably be in the White House and give Galileo the benefit of the doubt - assuming it gets off the ground.

Galileo could just be a case of kite flying. Serious hurdles include its cost - ?2 billion ($28.87 billion) - and the cocktail of countries involved.

Combining Israel with the likes of France and Russia appears a recipe for wrangling at best. Galileo gives new meaning to the words 'ill-starred'.

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