EU Satellite Navigation System Centre in Prague to Grow

Galileo - artists impression, photo: EC AV Services

Prague is the seat of GSA: European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency. It manages and monitors the increasingly ambitious EU space programme and its responsibilities are expected to grow.

Galileo - artists impression,  photo: EC AV Services
Believe it or not, but the Czechs were actually the third nation on planet Earth to send a man to space. His name was Vladimír Remek and he flew aboard the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 28 on 2 March 1978. Just a few months later Czechoslovakia also sent to space its own satellite. In other words, space exploration has fairly deep roots in this country. And Czechia has taken an active part in the EU space programme since becoming a member of the alliance.

Since 2008, Prague has been the seat of GSA, the European Union agency responsible for the satellite navigation system Galileo and its use. Karel Dobeš is the Czech Government’s liaison officer for GSA. Perhaps it is significant that I spoke to him at Strakova Akademie, the Office of the Czech Government where he has his own desk:

“Galileo offers more possibilities than you would think. All the satellite navigation systems develop in stages. The United States developed GPS some 25 or 30 years ago, and it took a long time to improve its capabilities. The Americans were pioneers and had to solve many problems. It definitely helped the developers of Galileo because they already knew about the technological hurdles, and so could get over them more easily and move ahead faster. Also, the technology used when developing Galileo was another step forward – it has greater precision, and the signal cannot be manipulated so that users would think that they are in a different place than they really are, as you might have seen in some action movies. And the progress continues. When the Americans develop the third generation of GPS, it will again be better. Right now, though, we can say that Galileo really is the best navigation system in the world. But it will take just a few years before the others improve their capabilities as well.”

From the point of view of the private sector, why do we need Galileo? I asked Jan Kolář who heads the non-governmental Czech Space Office:

Launch of Ariane rocket,  photo: Spotting973,  Flickr,  CC BY-SA 2.0
“What would Europe do if, say, America simply switched off the whole GPS system or just lowered its resolution or disabled some other services it normally provides? It has not happened yet, but it is a possibility – and the main reason for the development of Galileo. It is about the political independence of Europe.”

The American system GPS has been around for some time. Our phones, tablets, and computers are compatible with it, as well as Galileo, explains Karel Dobeš:

“This was the key task for the GSA in Prague. The agency started negotiations years ago with all the major chipset producers. Today, they can automatically receive signals from the GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo systems. So, the system is compatible and portable and we, as consumers, all benefit from that. A normal navigation application needs a signal from at least four satellites to be functional. When we had only GPS, there were only 24 satellites covering the Globe. Then came GLONASS, and there were altogether 48 satellites. Galileo now has 22 and will eventually add 30 more satellites. So, already now you can rely on the signal for your navigation wherever you are. It increases the accuracy and reliability of the whole system.”

There has been a lot of talk in the Czech media that the presence of the GSA in Prague is a big opportunity for Czech hi-tech companies:

“We organize workshops together with the GSA. There we inform technological companies about the latest developments in the field. So, it kind of motivates them that they have this opportunity to take part in these activities and the possibility of direct contact right here in Prague. The key factors for engagement of small and medium-sized businesses are communication and information. It does make a difference when you can easily access GSA administrators and experts because they are so close to you. You do not have to contact the Agency solely via the internet or make a business trip abroad. You can meet and speak to its representatives face-to-face, and that makes everything much easier.

Jan Kolář from the non-governmental Czech Space Office says that while the agency’s location is an advantage, Czech firms do not get preferential treatment because of it:

GSA headquarters in Prague,  photo: ŠJů,  CC BY 4.0
“I think that Czech firms are capable of participating in the programme no matter where in Europe the agency is physically located. Of course, it is more convenient if the agency is just around the corner, so to say. You do not have to spend money on travel; you can meet its administrators and representatives more often. On the other hand, like all other European bureaucrats, they must not give preferential treatment to businesses in any particular country. So, there is the advantage of accessibility for Czech firms, but I do not think that it means automatic preferential treatment in awarding any contracts.”

Be it as it may, Galileo seems to be on the right track. The strategic significance of the GSA headquarters in Prague is likely to grow.