A couple of weeks ago, the European Commission and the European Space Agency signed a massive deal with a combination of companies — including the British Inmarsat group — to build and run the Galileo navigation satellite network. This is going to be the world's first civilian global positioning service, and is designed to run alongside the US military's GPS system. It'll be free to use at a basic level, with increasing levels of accuracy available to those willing to pay.
So far, so good. But in researching how it'll all work when it goes live in 2008, some worrying reports surface. I already knew that the Americans are not happy at all about the idea, and have tried quite hard to get it canned on the grounds that it could be used to help its enemies. More worrying yet, with people like India, Israel and China being eager to sign up and fund part of the development it could also give the US' nominal friends independence from reliance on America's good will. Israel in particular is in Washington's bad books — not just for the obvious stuff, but for allegedly flogging American technology to China — and is feverishly building its own launchers, spy satellites and other delightful gizmos in the expectation that the auld alliance may grow ever cooler.
None of this is going down well. The Pentagon, which has an avowed intent to unilaterally control space (none of this namby-pamby 'for all mankind' nonsense these days, mate), has let it be known that it's perfectly prepared to blow the Galileo satellites out of the sky if it doesn't like what's going on. It's also played war games, carefully leaked to the Europeans, where Galileo satellites are blown up as they leave the launch pad. I thought these guys were our friends?
All this is great if you're a scriptwriter who fancies the possibility that Europe and America might end up going to war in space. The trouble with space, though, is that the physics is no respecter of which square-jawed, gung-ho general actually ordered the shots fired. The Galileo and GPS satellites are close neighbours — Galileo will orbit at around 23,222 km, while GPS is just downstairs at 20,200km. Both weigh in at over 500kg per satellite, and whiz around at around 7,000mph. Unlike the movies, when you blow up a satellite it doesn't just disappear in a cloud of incandescent plasma — all the bits depart in a variety of directions in a variety of very high speeds carrying a great deal of energy. If they hit another satellite, then it's likely to be curtains for that as well.
While there's a lot of space up in the mid-earth orbital planes they use, the 60-odd satellites of Galileo and GPS are in orbits designed to sweep through most of it in order to cover the Earth below as well as they can. If anyone starts aggressively modifying stuff up there, the chances are good that both networks will end up shot to bits in the resultant hailstorm. It'll look spectacular — but everyone on Earth will end up without the navigation and timing signals that increasingly large sectors of industry rely on. Geocaching might have a few problems as well, and what it'll do to the special relationship between the UK and the US is anyone's guess.
I can't see this ending well, unless the Pentagon gets considerably more internationalist in its outlook.