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Galileo in darkness

Kieren McCarthy has written an article for the Register that brings together two themes of interest to many Samizdata readers:

“One man’s mistake, missing backups and complete reboot: The tale of Europe’s Galileo satellites going dark”

In mid-July, the agency in charge of the network of 26 satellites, the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency (EGSA), warned of a “service degradation” but assured everyone that it would quickly be resolved.

It wasn’t resolved however, and six days later the system was not only still down but getting increasingly inaccurate, with satellites reporting that they were in completely different positions in orbit than they were supposed to be – a big problem for a system whose entire purpose is to provide state-of-the-art positional accuracy to within 20 centimeters.

Billions of organizations, individuals, phones, apps and so on from across the globe simply stopped listening to Galileo. It’s hard to imagine a bigger mess, aside from the satellites crashing down to Earth.

The article concludes,

In the meantime, a dangerous amount of political maneuvering means all the engineers are keeping their heads down. Which is a shame because by all accounts, there is a lot of good work going on, not helped by organizational silos.

In short, Galileo is a classic European venture: a great idea with talented people that has turned into a bureaucratic mess in which no one wants to take the blame for problems caused by unnecessary organizational complexity.

14 comments to Galileo in darkness

  • George Atkisson

    Every conceivable agency wanted in for the prestige and a share of the budget. The bureaucrats hogged as much authority as possible while ensuring that responsibility lay elsewhere. Hire clueless “supervisors” to pay off favors and pad the agency’s payroll. Undoubtedly every engineering and technical issue had to be vetted by a dozen agencies. Technical requirements were also undoubtedly cut back and unfunded by those same bureaucrats to prove their authority and save money. Every bureaucrat knows that there is far less risk in saying “No” than approving a change, upgrade, or expenditure. With that jigsaw of agencies and no clear chain of command, a disaster was inevitable.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    How many agencies would you need to consult to launch a satellite from Britain? Australia has some sort of Space Office, or Agency, so I suppose all sorts of requirements would need to be filled (Yes, if our rocket breaks the sound barrier, we’ll fix it!).

  • Mr Ecks

    Oh Dear –the EU’ road pricing orbital POS has collapsed. Quell tragedy indeed.

    It would be childish to waste time with several hundred lines of -BBWWAAAWAWAWHHHHAAHHAHAHAHAHA–so just imagine it instead.

    Shame about all the stolen money used by the EUscum to pay for this mess.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    This is the Galileo System Status website if anyone’s interested.

  • bobby b

    Does this mean that your phone map apps aren’t working? That you currently have no GPS service? Or is it just a matter of the accuracy degrading a bit?

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    bobby b: It was a while ago and people just using phones probably did not notice. Most phones are using GPS, Galileo, GLONASS and BEIDOU satellites all at the same time.

  • bobby b

    Ah, thanks. I didn’t pick up on that “past” part. I was picturing everyone in Europe suddenly without Maps, driving in lost circles while the economy crashed.

  • Andrew Duffin

    This was supposed to replace the US GPS system iirc.

    A timely reminder of what comes after hubris.

  • Rob

    While one key official has sought to blame a single individual for the system going dark

    I’m going to take a wildly informed guess and assume that was a French manager.

  • Mr Ed

    While one key official has sought to blame a single individual for the system going dark

    I’m going to take a wildly informed guess and assume that was a French manager.

    And I note the article says:

    But thanks to European politics, made worse by the UK’s Brexit process, the EU now wants to assert more control over the project.

    So to blame, it’s Mr Farage, isn’t it.

  • ns

    “While one key official has sought to blame a single individual for the system going dark”
    One individual? So the system was fragile and not robustly designed?
    I liked the graphic in the article showing some of the lines of authority and information for the various agencies. It is not clear who is responsible for what, which is most likely by design. It does illustrate that the system is less than the sum of its parts, i. e., what is the opposite of synergy? The EU.
    (to be fair, one could substitute many other bureaucracies for the EU in that answer).

  • llamas


    And there was me, 40 years ago, thinking that this was just a sitcom – who knew it was actually a documentary of the future?

    Let me guess – a German satellite, on a French rocket, with Irish software, running on an Italian
    processor, powered by Greek batteries, charged by Polish solar cells. Launched from Guyana, tracked from Lisbon, and downloading via a Spanish dish, located at Goonhilly Down.

    Am I close?



  • Am I close? (llamas, November 13, 2019 at 7:39 pm)

    I seem to remember the European Space Agency satellite that crashed into the sea near Havana in the early 60s was close. Given the political situation at the time, a very marginally different unplanned reentry point could have been unfortunate. 🙂

    Do I recall correctly (I may not) that it was a Belgian telemetry male connector plugged into another country’s female connector that f- , uh, that caused a problem with the rocket? The division of responsibilities left it no-one’s duty to ensure that no minuscule amount of air could be trapped between the connectors, to expand as external air pressure lessened, pushing them apart.

    In this case, it would seem past performance is a guide to future outcomes. Long ago, I worked in a European collaborative project and saw first-hand how bureaucratic divide-work-between-nations requirements made one of many causes for failure in the EU (the EC as it was then called on its route from EEC through EC to EU, expanding its ‘areas of competence’ in one sense – but very much not in any other).

  • Sam Duncan

    “Oh Dear –the EU’ road pricing orbital POS has collapsed. Quell tragedy indeed.”

    Heheh. 🙂 Galileo isn’t a “great idea”. It’s a bloody stupid idea. It has two purposes: to allow European military operations independent of NATO, and vehicle tracking. Frankly, I hope all its satellites burn up.