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Galileo and Copernicus – EU flagship space programmes

Written by Vincent Reillon,

The EU space programmes for satellite navigation – Galileo – and earth observation – Copernicus – were both launched at the end of the 1990s. While the programmes have suffered significant delays and cost overruns, they have always benefited from a strong support from the European Parliament and the other EU institutions. These programmes represent a cumulative public investment of more than €20 billion from the EU and the European Space Agency (ESA).

As they are reaching their full operational capacity, the strategic independence they provide for the EU and their Member States represent a strong asset for the development of services in navigation, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, energy, public health, transport and urban planning. The market uptake of the services and data provided by Galileo and Copernicus is a key priority of the European space strategy adopted in October 2016.

Galileo: overcoming obstacles

Galileo: Overcoming obstacles

© Andrey Armyagov / Fotolia

Galileo, the long-awaited European global navigation satellite systems, is at a turning point in its history: it reached initial operational capacity in December 2016 and is expected to be fully operational for 2021. This autonomous European civilian tool, which can be used anywhere on earth, transmits positioning and timing data from space for use on the ground to determine a user’s location. Alongside it, the European geostationary navigation overlay system (EGNOS), which improves the accuracy and integrity of the American global positioning system (GPS) over EU territory, became fully operational in 2011.

With the idea of establish a public-private partnership to implement the programmes failing in 2007, the European Union (EU) decided to provide the funding needed to complete both programmes. Galileo and EGNOS became the first infrastructure to be owned by the EU.

Delays and cost over-runs can be explained through political, technical, industrial and security issues. It is estimated that by 2020, the EU and ESA will have invested more than €13 billion in these programmes. This public investment, although much larger than that initially planned, matches the cost of similar programmes such as GPS, and is justified by the need for the European Union to have strategic autonomy in the field.

Securing the Copernicus programme

The Copernicus programme is a user-driven programme which provides six free-of-charge operational services (atmosphere monitoring, marine environment monitoring, land monitoring, climate change, emergency management and security) to EU, national, and regional institutions, as well as to the private sector. The programme builds on the initiative on global monitoring for environment and security launched in 2001. It aims at filling the gaps in European earth observation capacities. Data is provided from space infrastructures, particularly the sentinel missions developed under the programme, and in situ infrastructure supported by the Member States. Copernicus services are mainly operated by European Union (EU) agencies.

Securing the Copernicus programme

© timothyh / Fotolia

Copernicus requires a high level of continuity in data and service provision. A strong political commitment at EU level is required to provide adequate funding for the development of the operational earth observation missions and services. The EU – under the framework programme for research and operational programmes – and the ESA have invested more than €7 billion in Copernicus since 2002. By the end of 2017, four of the six sentinel missions should be fully deployed and the last of the six services should become fully operational.

As Copernicus reaches its full operational stage, the focus of the programme is shifting towards the uptake of the services and the development of a downstream sector that would provide additional commercial services to the users. The development of the downstream sector is dependent on the long-term continuity of service, to be ensured by improved governance of the programme and renewed long-term political and financial commitments for the next EU budgetary period.


Read also ‘Galileo: Overcoming obstacles – History of EU global navigation satellite systems‘ and ‘Securing the Copernicus programme: Why EU earth observation matters‘ in PDF.


Estimated Galileo and EGNOS budget from the EU and ESA (in € million)

Estimated Galileo and EGNOS budget from the EU and ESA (in € million)

Organisation of Copernicus and key challenges of the programme

Organisation of Copernicus and key challenges of the programme

The evolution of Galileo's timetable

The evolution of Galileo’s timetable

Estimated Copernicus budget from EU and ESA since 2002 (in million €)

Estimated Copernicus budget from EU and ESA since 2002 (in million €)

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