Galileo ticks to the rhythm of Swiss clocks

Swiss atomic clocks will mark time for Galileo's satellites.

The European Union's decision to proceed with a SFr4.69 billion ($2.8 billion) satellite navigation system will rely on Swiss watch-making know-how.

This content was published on March 27, 2002

The Galileo system is being billed as a competitor to the United States' global positioning system (or GPS), which is under the control of the military.

Europe has decided to proceed with a rival system - to become operational in 2008 - in a bid to ensure the continent's 350 million consumers maintain their independence from the US.

Critics of Galileo consider it a costly white elephant that will undermine the US military's ability to switch its GPS off during wartime. But its European supporters see Galileo as essential to continental sovereignty and economic development.

Either way, at least one Swiss firm is set to benefit from the decision to proceed.

Swiss contract

Atomic clock makers, the Temex Neuchâtel Time company, have won the contract to supply precision timepieces for over 30 Galileo satellites.

Temex director Pascal Rochat said building the Galileo clocks would present significant technical and financial challenges.

"We have to be careful, this is technically very difficult, it needs a lot of expertise and experience," Rochat said.

"If we have problems we may lose a lot of money," he said. "On the other hand, if we do a very good job, the profit margin will be very good. It all depends on the way we manage these projects."

The Galileo satellites will travel around the earth in three separate orbits, providing coverage around the globe. Users of the system - from taxi-drivers to airline pilots and ocean-going captains - will be able to access accurate data about their precise location.

The project is being jointly funded by the European Union and the European Space Agency - of which Switzerland is a member.

Only Swiss will do

Rochat said Switzerland was the natural choice to build the advanced timing-systems needed to run Galileo.

"Since we started designing an atomic clock 18 years [ago], we are far in advance of anybody in Europe," he said.

He added that Temex was one of only a few companies that specialized in the high-tech clocks.

"The navigation [system] is based on the measurement of electromagnetic waves. The clock we've been designing now for seven years, for navigation systems, has very similar characteristics to the actual high-performance clocks flying on the latest GPS satellites.

"This clock will have five-times better stability than the clock flying on GPS... but with one-third of the weight and volume."

Temex anticipates significant growth in its division that produces the Galileo clocks - currently employing only four people. The company itself employs thirty.

by Jacob Greber and Scott Capper

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