LONDON The construction phase of Europe's Galileo satellite navigation system has finally got the go-ahead, with the European Commission and European Space Agency launching the procurement process.
The Commission has set aside more than Euros 2.1 billion to build 26 satellites, buy launch rockets and set up the ground control centres.
The total budget of Euros 3.4 billion between 2007 and 2013 has been divided into six segments with contracts for satellites, launchers, computer programmes, ground stations, control stations and the system's operation.
Even thought the timescales are tight, the EC and its partner the ESA have cautioned that "the procurement of the Galileo infrastructure is particularly complex." All contracts should be in place by mid 2009, said a spokesman for the Commission.
The system, which will compete against but and also collaborate with the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS), should be fully operational by 2013, several years behind the original target. . The first four constellation spacecraft are expected to be launched in 2010.
Two test satellites, Giove-A and Giove-B, are already paving way for the full system. The latter was launched earlier this year.
Galileo's development has been controversial because of prolonged political squabbling, technical problems and cost overruns.
Last year, the Commission was forced to revise the whole manufacturing and operational structure of the ambitious project after the collapse of the private consortium asked to build and operate the system.
Construction of Galileo will now be paid for entirely from European taxes, with some of the companies from the failed consortium certain to be among the eventual contractors.
The potential bidders include companies such as EADS subsidiary Astrium, German satellite builder OHB Technology, Thales Alenia Space, and Logica.
Companies outside the EU will not be barred from bidding and Boeing has already shown interest.
Some work on Galileo is already under way - four operational satellites and some ground control systems are in the process of being built. The contracts now open to competition will complete the network.
Bidders are being offered "six work packages", with strict rules governing how much work can go to each company and how much of that work must then be sub-contracted to partners.
Europe has already spent Euros 1.6 billion on the project and ministers and the European Parliament have warned that the additional Euros 3.4 billion recently approved for sat-nav investments will be the limit on expenditure.
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