Speech by Mark Harbers, Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management, at the European Navigation Conference 2023, Noordwijk

Hello everyone,

Let me start by taking you back to the 1st of September 1859, a cloudless day in Redhill, England. It’s 11.18 am when astronomer Richard Carrington looks at the sun through his telescope and notices several sunspots. Skilfully, he maps them out. Suddenly, he sees huge, kidney-shaped flashes of light in the sky. He later said that he was ‘somewhat flurried by the surprise’. Never before had this been observed. But what took place the following day was even more intriguing. And I quote from a NASA report:

‘Just before dawn the next day, skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight. Indeed, stunning auroras pulsated even at near tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador and Hawaii.

Even more disconcerting, telegraph systems worldwide went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire.’
Of course, you’ll all be familiar with what later became known as the Carrington Event. What the astronomist saw was a massive solar flare, resulting in a major geomagnetic storm on Earth. Back then, the consequences weren’t too serious. Although those telegraph operators probably thought otherwise...

These days the consequences would be catastrophic.
Aircraft would lose contact with air traffic control and wouldn’t be able to navigate properly. Ships would drift aimlessly at sea. Communication systems would break down. Emergency services wouldn’t be able to contact each other. There’d be no financial transactions. No debit card payments. No supplies to shops. And no electricity.
In other words, our society would grind to a halt. At least, if we don’t prepare and work hard to boost resilience in navigation – the main theme of this European Navigation Conference.

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to the Netherlands.
It’s great that we can be here in person after several years of meeting online. And it’s wonderful to be able to host you here in Noordwijk, at the beating heart of Dutch space technology and also ESA’s largest technology centre.

Twenty-two countries are working together here and at many more centres in Europe to build a strong, independent position in the space sector. A lot has been achieved already. And now there’s a big new challenge to take on.

Satellite data is now indispensable in the daily lives of most Europeans.

Over the years, it’s become part of the lifeblood of our society and economy. And the development of this so-called ‘GNSS’ is set to continue and grow.

The European Union Agency for the Space Programme predicts that around ten billion GNSS receivers will be operational worldwide by 2031. In 2021, there were just over six billion.

Being able to navigate precisely around the globe is critical to the flow of people and goods by air, sea and land. Time signals from satellites are deeply integrated into modern computing, communications, finance and energy networks.

Often without knowing it, we’ve become dependent on satellite navigation. And this often involves open, unsecured PNT signals – open position, navigation and time signals.
They’re widely accessible, but that makes them vulnerable.

Not only to space weather, like the solar storm Carrington saw. But also to deliberate disruptions. For instance, manipulating navigation systems has become a key strategic weapon in the war between Russia and Ukraine.
And beyond conflict zones, too, experience has shown that satellite navigation failures can cause the systems we rely on to suddenly stop functioning properly. The risks of such failures are high. But we know too little about those risks.

This was underscored once again in a recent study commissioned by my ministry, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. It examined the vulnerability and awareness of organisations in different sectors, and it resulted in a report known as IKUS-2: the Inventory of Vulnerabilities to Satellite Navigation Outages.

This report shows that most organisations don’t have a policy for boosting PNT resilience. And they’re often unaware of their dependency.
In many organisations, knowledge about technical resilience to PNT failure or about alternatives is limited. I’m sure this doesn’t only apply to Dutch organisations.
So there’s work to be done.

In the Netherlands, we’re working hard to get ready for the Full Operational Capability of Galileo Public Regulated Service in 2025
Unlike the current open signals, the PRS signal used is secure. It offers good protection against interference and manipulation, such as jamming and spoofing. So there’s a reliable guarantee that navigation and timing signals will remain available even in times of crisis.

Galileo is a great example of European technology and cooperation. There is no other satellite navigation system like it in the world. Galileo and PRS are crucial to Europe’s strategic autonomy and to our security and defence. So I believe the Galileo system should become the main European standard for governments and vital sectors.

The Netherlands is hard at work on the PRS preparation phase. We’re aiming to start the legislative process by the end of this year. And we want to make sure our vital sectors are fully prepared as well.
At the same time, we’re also working to increase knowledge and awareness among organisations. They need to be more aware of the vulnerabilities and know what measures they can take to boost resilience. We’re developing an information portal to help organisations answer practical questions, like how vulnerable they are and what measures they can take.

We’re also starting to monitor satellite navigation signals to gain experience in identifying disruptions and failures at an early stage. This will enable us to inform users in good time so they can take action.

But more is needed. For example, PRS does not protect against signal failures.
We need to pay more attention to back-up systems. What can we fall back on if satellites fail? What terrestrial systems can we use in such cases? How can we incorporate reliable time and place registration? Using atomic clocks, for example, which don’t float around in space but are firmly anchored on Earth.
Let’s make sure we don’t end up flurried by surprise, like Richard Carrington. Let’s prepare ourselves for future storms.  

As experts, you have a vital part to play. Our society is powered by technology. It all seems so obvious. But it takes a lot of knowledge and cooperation to make our systems even more stable and reliable.
I’m delighted that you’re here today. And that the theme of this conference is such a crucial one. So in closing, I would say: make us resilient!
I wish you all an enjoyable and inspiring conference.

Thank you.