Europe congratulated itself Wednesday with the launch of the first test satellite of the Galileo navigation system, designed to rival the US system and put global positioning into civilian hands.
A joint initiative of the European Union and the European Space Agency (ESA), the Galileo satellite network will both compete with and complement the current US Global Positioning System (GPS), which was originally developed for military targeting and positioning and is still overseen by the Pentagon.
The European system was the first to be designed for strictly civilian use and will cost an estimated 3.8 billion euros ($4.5 billion).
After more than two years of delays, the Galileo project blasted off Wednesday morning in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The European GIOVE-A test satellite was sent into orbit piggybacking on a Russian Soyuz rocket.
The 600-kilo (1,320 pound) British-built GIOVE-A is scheduled to orbit at 23,000 kilometers (14,500 miles) above the earth.
A strategic step for Europe
"This is an essential step in the Galileo project: going from theory to practice," said Dominique Detain, a spokesman for ESA on the Galileo project.
The GIOVE-A satellite will test various technologies including an atomic clock that ESA says is the most exact ever sent into space. GIOVE is an acronym standing for Galileo In Orbit Validation Element, but also the Italian name for the planet Jupiter whose moons were discovered by the famous Renaissance astronomer Galileo Galilei.
With the Galileo project Europe hopes to gain its independence in the strategic domain of navigating by satellite, which has become indispensable for managing traffic in the air, at sea, and even on motorways.
The United States and the EU last year reached an accord on adopting common operating standards for the two systems, overcoming American concerns that the Galileo system will compromise the security of GPS, on which the US military is heavily dependent.
An extraordinary level of precision
According to ESA, Galileo, which will be under civilian control, is designed to deliver real-time positioning accuracy down to the meter range, which is unprecedented for a publicly available system.
It will guarantee service under all but the most extreme circumstances and will inform users within seconds of a failure of any satellite, which will make it especially valuable where safety is crucial, such as running trains, guiding cars and landing aircraft.
Once in orbit, GIOVE-A will be under the control of the Surrey Satellite Systems operations center in the British city of Guildford.
The project's next phase will be the launch of a second GIOVE-B test satellite in 2006, followed with four working satellites by 2008. The ultimate goal remains a constellation of 30 satellites encircling the globe.
The date for opening the network to commercial use has been pushed back two years to 2010.
To help cover the cost of the huge investment, the EU has sought other contributors to the project. To date, agreements have been signed with China and Israel, and negotiations are under way with about a dozen other nations including Ukraine, India and Morocco.
Between cooperation and competition
Galileo will also be compatible with GLONASS, the Russian network of 24 geostationary satellites, which is not scheduled to be in operation before 2008.
According to the Ria-Novosti news agency, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged his government on Monday to speed up development of Russia's planned satellite navigation system.
"We have to see what we can do in 2006 and 2007 to develop the commercial utilization of this system," Putin said.
Like the American network, GLONASS will be controlled by military operators that cannot guarantee the maintenance of an uninterrupted service.
Russia has already launched 17 of the planned system satellites, including three placed into orbit on Sunday, but Putin warned that some of these may be out of date by the time the navigation system is inaugurated unless the development is hurried along.
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