Space is starting to get crowded. Japan’s space agency last week launched Michibiki – or “Pointing the Way” – the first in a new constellation of navigation satellites. It is the start of a new space race, which could improve daily life on Earth.
Most people who use GPS services – be it Sat Nav or Grindr – have a vague awareness that there’s a satellite peering down on them to pinpoint their location. But what they most probably don’t appreciate is that the eyes belong to a US military satellite: GPS is a US Air Force project dating back to the 1970s.
Its primary function is to help F-16 pilots drop bombs down Taliban chimneys – not steer Londoners to the nearest branch of Waitrose. America’s generals are remarkably generous in lending the world what remains a vital military system, but there has always been a remote possibility that they might disconnect us if they ever felt that they couldn’t spare the network capacity. It would be an unceremonious return to the 1990s, a forgotten world of A-to-Zs and misdirected flirting.
Thanks to Michibiki and a swathe of other new satellite networks that will soon rival GPS, we will now be spared this fate. The $880m (€594m) Japanese project is actually the least ambitious of the new crop; with four satellites, it’s only designed to cover Japan. Three other new networks, each with 20 or 30 satellites, will soon challenge GPS globally. Russia’s new network is almost fully operational; Europe and China should have theirs up and running within the next few years. India, too, has a satellite network on the drawing board.
But do we really need four global satellite networks? “The US Air Force would say, ‘No, of course you don’t',” suggests Brendan Curry, vice-president of the Space Foundation, based in Colorado Springs, insisting that the US military would never unplug GPS except in the direst emergency. “The damage it would do to our friends and allies would be just too great,” he says. In which case, when we have free use of GPS, why are governments spending billions – close to €10bn in the case of Europe’s Galileo network – to launch satellites that will only replicate what GPS does already?
“There will be a more sure service,” says Curry, once far more satellites are flying – although this will only be guaranteed if device manufacturers make their gadgets compatible with the various networks. “And these countries have their own interests – they don’t want to rely on the US, and it’s good for your technical work force and industrial base to work on these kinds of hi-tech projects.”