EU orders next-generation Galileo satellites

Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent
@BBCAmoson Twitter

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Image source, ESA
Image caption,
Artwork: Galileo satellites beam down precise time signals

The European Commission has handed down industrial contracts worth a total of €1.47bn (£1.31bn; $1.97bn) to build the next generation of Galileo satellites.

The work is going to the continent's two dominant space manufacturers - Airbus and Thales Alenia Space.

They will make six spacecraft each for the global navigation satellite system, with the first of them likely to go into orbit in 2024.

Galileo is the EU's version of the US Global Positioning System (GPS).

Now enabled in billions of smartphones worldwide, both services allow users to identify their location on the planet down to an error of a metre or so.

The precise timing transmissions from orbit are also used in numerous infrastructure applications, including the synchronisation of telecommunications and energy networks.

Galileo currently has 24 operational spacecraft in orbit, with a further 12 first-generation models at various stages of assembly and still awaiting launch.

The latest order is designed to incorporate newer technologies that will improve the robustness and accuracy of the signals beamed down to Earth.

These technologies include digitally configurable antennas, inter-satellite links, new atomic clocks, and propulsion systems that use electric engines.

Both Airbus (Germany) and TAS (Italy) will not speak publicly about their contract wins until final details are ironed out and all documents are signed. This is likely to take a couple of weeks.

Airbus and TAS built the four "pathfinder", or In-Orbit Validation, satellites that demonstrated the utility of Galileo in 2011/12.

The companies then subsequently lost the batch orders for the operational first-generation spacecraft to a consortium of OHB-System (Germany) and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (UK).

That consortium was broken up for the second-generation tender when Britain left the EU. The UK's "third country" status now excludes its firms from working on the most sensitive elements of what the Union regards as a security programme.

OHB-System still took part in the bid process but was unsuccessful.

The first of the old consortium's final batch of 12 first-generation spacecraft will launch later this year.

The European Union has set aside €9.01bn for Galileo and its sister programme Egnos over the next seven-year budget period.