As European Union ministers consider how to get the problem-plagued Galileo satellite navigation system into orbit, one man who has been there had some simple advice — do it fast, or the Chinese will steal the show.
Czech European Parliament member and former cosmonaut Vladimir Remek warned of a blunder of cosmic proportions — and a wasted business opportunity — if the multibillion-euro project fails to take off.
EU transport ministers will discuss on Friday whether to throw a lifeline to Galileo by switching to full public funding of a project now years behind schedule.
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Envisaged as a rival for the U.S.-run Global Positioning System, or GPS, Galileo would comprise a network of 30 satellites beaming radio signals to receiving devices on the ground, helping users pinpoint their location.
The project faces major delays and even a collapse, however, as a consortium of eight companies from France, Germany, Spain, Britain and Italy squabbles over how to share the work.
The European Commission recommended that Galileo be taken away from the companies after the consortium missed a May deadline to set up a joint legal entity to run the project. The earliest projected date for Galileo is now 2012.
China's global positioning system is expected to be operational by next year.
Remek, who orbited aboard a Soviet spaceship in 1978, said the delays are a nuisance not a catastrophe, but warned European leaders of further impasses.
"If the protraction continues, it'll be a massive disgrace for Europe," said Remek.
Remek, an EU parliamentarian since 2004, warned that if the European Union doesn't move fast, the global satellite market will be parceled out and the EU positioning system will not be profitable
"China is a phenomenon which the world has not quite grasped. If their system is as professional as GPS and comes much cheaper, a European system will not be necessary," he told The Associated Press.
Galileo — which is interoperable with GPS — would more than double existing GPS coverage. It is expected to improve coverage in high-latitude areas such as northern Europe, and in big cities where skyscrapers can block signals.
Galileo will also be more exact than GPS, with precision of up to one meter (3.3 feet), compared with five meters (16.4 feet) with GPS technology. And unlike GPS — which is ultimately controlled by the U.S. military — it would be a civilian-based system run by a civilian authority.
Public funds were originally set aside to cover around one-third of Galileo, with the private sector penciled in to provide the rest. The total price tag has been estimated at between 3.4 billion euros and 3.6 billion euros ($4.59-4.86 billion) by various EU institutions.
The cost would rise should the project suffer more delays, the EU warned.
"We need to determine the alternatives to finance this project, because we're talking about huge additional sums," German Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee said.
EU governments must decide if they are willing to cover the full cost of constructing the system and, more importantly, from where they would pull the money.
A final decision is likely to be made later this year.
Only one of Galileo's 30 planned satellites has been launched, in December 2005. The second satellite missed its autumn 2006 launch date after it short-circuited during final testing.
By comparison, the GPS system has 24 satellites.