With Galileo Initial Services at last on the horizon and a quadruple satellite launch scheduled for November, here’s hoping that Europe’s GNSS constellation will be delivering limited, but reliable, global PNT services before the year is out.
The four Galileo satellites for Arianespace’s first Ariane 5 mission for the constellation are being prepared at ESA’s launch facility in French Guiana. The flight is scheduled for 17 November. However neither these four new satellites, nor the two orbited in May, are required to deliver Galileo Initial Services, which should be launched officially some time in November. Fingers crossed.
The European GNSS Agency (GSA) is gearing up to assume its operational role for Galileo in early 2017. During the summer the GSA formally accepted their Loyola de Palacio facility in Madrid, Spain that houses the European GNSS Service Centre (GSC). This is a significant milestone in the development of the programme and its service provision as Galileo’s “door to the GNSS world” as GSA Executive Director Carlo des Dorides described the facility at the handover ceremony.
GSA already oversees the operation and service provision for the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) (since 2015) along with managing the security accreditation and general security provision for both programmes.
The GSC offers over 1,100 square metres of space and currently employs over 40 people. Since 2013, the core team at GSC has been providing limited services and working as a precursor to GSC v1. Its key work includes supporting the lead up to Galileo Initial Services provision, along with operating the GSC Helpdesk, disseminating orbital products to the Search and Rescue (SAR) community, supporting GNSS-related research and industrial activity and monitoring user satisfaction. Once operational, GSC v1 will be connected to the Galileo core system, thus enabling the long anticipated Commercial Service. This service is expected to enter operations by mid-2017.
Once the Galileo Operations Contract is awarded and Initial Services officially declared, the GSC is expected to see a significant increase in staff.
Also in the summer CNES President and France’s inter-ministerial coordinator for European satellite navigation programmes Jean-Yves Le Gall was elected as the new chair of the GSA Administrative Board with Mark Bacon, representing the United Kingdom, elected as deputy chair.
“I am honoured to have been elected chair of the GSA Administrative Board, with Galileo now poised to enter its operational phase,” said Le Gall. “This election confirms the desire of Member States to join forces on the cusp of a prolific period for European space as we move Galileo towards full operational capability.”
Mark Bacon added “I am very pleased to have been elected to work with the Board and I look forward to helping the GSA deliver on the Galileo and EGNOS programmes over the coming years.” However the UK’s decision to leave the EU (Brexit) must make his position rather uncomfortable – and temporary – to say the least.
The GSA Administrative Board is composed of representatives from each EU Member State, the European Commission, and the EU parliament. The Board meets three times per year to ensure that the Agency performs its tasks correctly. As things stand if the UK is no longer an EU Member State it must lose its representative(s) on the advisory board.
However, the relationship between the UK and EU space programmes is, of course, subject to the Brexit negotiations. The UK will almost certainly remain a member of the European Space Agency (ESA) as this is a pan-European body not an EU agency, however when it leaves the EU the country will have to renegotiate terms if it wants to continue to participate in the key EU programmes such as Galileo GNSS and Copernicus Earth Observation system.
The ESA is autonomous from the EU and should not be directly affected by Brexit confirmed Jean Bruston, head of ESA’s EU policy office at a media briefing in mid-September. But “As soon as it [Britain] is leaving the EU it is not participating in these programmes [Galileo / Copernicus] any longer,” he observed.
In addition, UK-based companies hold contracts worth tens of millions of euros from ESA to supply hardware for the Copernicus and Galileo GNSS. “If nothing changes [and Brexit goes ahead], we would have to stop these contracts,” said Bruston bluntly.
Of course, Britain could still contribute to Galileo and Copernicus if it negotiated a third-party agreement with the EU, as Norway and Switzerland (both non EU members) have done. The down side is that this may take some time to initiate, let alone complete, and if Britain sticks to its guns on issues such as free movement of people then the likelihood of a successful outcome for the UK is not high.
In an interview with French media ESA director-general Jan Woerner reinforced Bruston’s views saying that “the UK will remain a member state of ESA, this is very clear” but also continuing “As we are also dealing with European programmes like Copernicus and Galileo, and also the question of UK citizens working on the continent and all these legal issues, we have to take this into account.”
Many in ‘continental Europe’, as we Brits so often condescend to describe our fellow Europeans, will be more than happy to see the U.K. no longer participating in deciding key aspects of EU space and other policy areas.
It is no coincidence that the European Commission has become much more vocal on plans for a European defence force since the Brits announced their departure. The U.K. has long been opposed to the concept of an ‘EU Army.’ However planning and military cooperation between Member States outside normal NATO channels has been increasing over many years. The small and discreet (so discreet that I didn’t realise the exact location of its HQ in Brussels until the recent terrorist incidents meant burly Belgian paratroopers were stationed outside and I asked them what they were guarding. Has to be said they were not discreet!) has seen its budget frozen for the last five years, but this may now change.
The interface of EU space and defence policy – in particular ‘dual use’ issues – will also become simpler without the U.K.’s protests. A leaked draft of the upcoming EU Space Policy communication talked directly of dual-use synergies to reinforce security from space, in particular to reduce costs and improve efficiency, and that the next generation of EU GNSS and Copernicus programmes should be designed from the start to be more relevant for security purposes. Defence-related research is also slated for future Horizon 2020 calls.
The draft policy document also underlines that with EU space programmes becoming fully operational, building stability, trust and confidence in users is a key objective. Current services must be fully deployed and their long-term continuity and evolution assured. This continuity should be driven by user needs and take into consideration the mid-term (hardly mid-term for Galileo!) evaluation of the programmes that should happen in 2017. For Galileo and EGNOS, the document looks to improvements in the current services, including greater robustness and performance, and provision of additional services, such as regional or timing services.
So with Brexit what is the U.K.’s GNSS – and space-related – industry and research community to do? Of course many of the UK industrial players are multi-national companies and internal transfer of people and/ or projects will overcome many issues. And bi-lateral collaborative agreements on exchange of talent and ideas between partners can also achieve the same results for smaller companies and research groups. However not having a seat in the policy process and the development of programmes will put ‘UK plc’ at a distinct disadvantage in my opinion.
But U.K. leaders say that Brexit is an opportunity to be seized and that the U.K. should be looking to sell goods and services in other global markets than the EU. Which is something most U.K. industry has been doing since trade/ time began. And in my experience U.K. business leaders have always been much more eager to go jump on a plane to the States or Australia than go visit their European neighbours – something to do with our renowned national language skills perhaps?
Space is no exception – and one that has been shown to be a success in recent times. A helping hand is provided by InnovateUK, the U.K.’s government innovation agency, that is organising its third ‘Space Mission UK’ to the US in November. These are trade and investment missions specifically designed to support U.K. start-up companies to build world-leading space and satellite application businesses.
Space Mission 1 visited Utah, LA and Silicon Valley in August 2015 and Space Mission 2 landed in Houston in November 2015. Space Mission 3 will visit San Francisco and LA from 5-11 November this year.
Mission programmes are varied but typically include visits to companies working at the forefront of the sector, networking opportunities with investors and corporate venture people interested in space, visits to incubators, accelerators and technology hubs, and masterclasses on pitch development, business culture and market entry.
The previous two Space Missions have had immediate impact for the companies involved, including securing over £1 million in investment, and initiating collaborations with major organisations such as NASA and (ironically) ESA, and winning contracts with the UK Ministry of Defence at home.
GNSS-related companies in previous missions include Arralis who build high-end semiconductor chips but have also been funded to develop novel GNSS antennas, and an exciting data fusion start-up – Gyana – that takes complex inputs from multiple data sources, including satellite, to build simple to understand 3D situational images. The founder of the business, engineering graduate Joyeeta Das, has raised US $1.1m since the mission.
You can find a complete list of companies who have participated on the previous missions here.
The selection for Space Mission 3 has closed and I am told there is at least one GNSS applications company that has been chosen to be on the plane in November. Good luck to them all!
Google emergency LBS upgrade
E112 is a location-based version of the 112 universal European emergency number, where the telecommunication operator transmits location information to the emergency centre in parallel to the call itself. With more than 70 percent of calls to emergency services coming from mobile phones, getting help fast and efficiently to the caller can be challenging if they don’t know where they are. Now, in a major step forward for implementation, Google has created and rolled out in two European countries (U.K. and Estonia) its Emergency Location Service on Android, with other regions to follow. The feature, when supported by the caller’s network, sends the phone’s location to emergency services when the 112 (or equivalent) emergency number is dialed.
Emergency Location Service is supported by more than 99 percent of existing Android devices (version 2.3 and above) through Google Play services. The service activates when supported by the mobile network operator or emergency infrastructure provider.
The new geographical location system claims to identify the source of a mobile phone emergency call to typically within 0.003 square kilometres (less than half the size of a football field) instead of a current average of around 12 square kilometres.
When an emergency call is made with an enabled Android smartphone, the phone automatically activates its location service and sends its position by text message to the 112 service. This usually takes less than 20 seconds. This text message is not visible on the handset and is not charged for.
And the first European Galileo-ready smartphone has been launched with the Aquaris X5 Plus smartphone, produced by the Spanish technology company BQ, and based on the Galileo-supported Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 processor with Galileo capability accessible via a software update to be released in Quarter 4 2016.
U.S.-based Qualcomm announced in June that it was adding support for Galileo across its Snapdragon processor and modern portfolios for smartphone, computing, automotive and IoT applications.
As well as Galileo capability, the Aquaris X5 Plus is powered by the latest Google Android OS and has all the usual features of a top end smart phone including 16 mega pixel ‘back’ camera and support for 4k video recording with a stabiliser and fingerprint recognition for added security.
If you want to take the pulse of the GNSS user technology industry and keep up with the latest trends then you’ll need to get your hands on the GSA’s GNSS User Technology Report due out at the beginning of October.
The 2016 report will be launched on 4 October as part of the Horizon 2020 Space Information Days in Prague. This two-day GSA-hosted event will introduce the third call for GSA-funded Horizon 2020 research and innovation proposals for Galileo and EGNOS.
The document will take an in-depth look at the latest state-of-the-art GNSS receiver technology, along with providing expert analysis on the various trends that are defining the future global GNSS technology landscape. The report will focus on three key areas: mass market solutions; transport safety and liability-critical solutions; and high precision, timing and asset management solutions.
Pulsar GNSS for deep space
The use of pulsars, highly magnetized, rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation with a very precise period, have been potential candidates for a deep space navigation system for many years. Now a paper from the U.K.’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and the University of Leicester shows that pulsars can be used to obtain position along a particular direction in space to an accuracy of two kilometres in the direction of the pulsar. Furthermore such a technology could operate autonomously and greatly increase the number and capabilities of space missions, the paper claims.
To calculate their position a space craft would need to carry a small X-ray telescope. The method uses X-rays emitted from pulsars, which can be used to work out the position of a craft in space in 3 dimensions to an accuracy of 30 km at the distance of Neptune. Certain types of pulsar, called ‘millisecond pulsars’, emit pulses of radiation with the regularity and precision of an atomic clock and therefore could be used much like GNSNS in space.
The paper, published in Experimental Astronomy, details simulations undertaken using data, such as the pulsar positions and a craft’s distance from the Sun, for an ESA feasibility study of the concept. The simulations took these data and tested the concept of triangulation by pulsars with current X-ray telescope technology and state-of-the art position, velocity and timing analysis. This generated a list of usable pulsars and measurements of how accurately a small telescope can lock onto these pulsars and calculate a location.
The key finding was that at a distance of 30 astronomical units – the approximate distance of Neptune from the Earth – an accuracy of 2km or 5km can be calculated in the direction of a particular pulsar (PSR B1937+21) by locking onto the pulsar for ten or one hours respectively and that by locking onto three pulsars, a 3D location with an accuracy of 30km can be calculated.
This is an improvement on the current navigation methods of the ground-based Deep Space Network (DSN) and European Space Tracking (ESTRACK) network as it could be autonomous with no need for Earth contact for months or years, if an advanced atomic clock is also on the craft. Also ESTRACK and DSN can only track a small number of spacecraft at any one time. It is also possible that the pulsar technique could be quicker.
Dr Setnam Shemar from NPL commented: “How these [space]craft navigate will in future become a limiting factor to our ambitions. The cost of maintaining current large ground-based communications systems based on radio waves is high and they can only communicate with a small number of craft at a time. Using pulsars as location beacons in space, together with a space atomic clock, allows for autonomy and greater capability in the outer solar system.”
This simulation uses real-world technology and proves its capabilities for this navigation task. The X-ray telescope can be launched into space due to its low weight and size and it will be flown on a mission to Mercury in 2018. Could we be seeing the emergence of a navigation technology that can enable a new era of space exploration?
And with that look into the future it is time to say “adios” to this column. From now on my EAGER dispatches will be sprinkled through other GPS World imprints and platforms. I’ll be at the global geospatial fun-fest that is Intergeo in Hamburg in October and sniffing around the first Galileo ‘hackathon’ in Berlin in early November, so I hope to see many of you at those and subsequent Euro-GNSS events in the future.
A bientot as they say in these parts.
 Towards practical autonomous deep-space navigation using X-Ray pulsar timing’ Shemar, S., Fraser, G., Heil, L. et al. Exp Astron (2016). doi:10.1007/s10686-016-9496-z