The European Union launched the first satellite in its Galileo navigation program on Wednesday, which European officials expect one day will end the continent’s reliance on the U.S. Global Positioning System.
The Galileo satellite, named “Giove A,” took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz rocket. Journalists monitored the liftoff through a linkup at the European Space Agency headquarters in Paris.
After the launch amid clear skies, the satellite was released into orbit and began transmitting signals, scientists said.
The $4 billion Galileo project will eventually use about 30 satellites and is expected to more than double GPS coverage, providing satellite navigation for everyone from motorists to sailors to mapmakers. Because Galileo is under civilian control, the ESA also says it can guarantee operation at almost all times, unlike the American system.
For years, Europeans have been concerned about the possibility that the U.S. military could degrade or even cut off GPS service for national security reasons. Last year, for example, President Bush asked the Pentagon to draw up a plan for temporarily disabling navigation satellites to block terrorists from using the technology during a crisis.
Europe's long-term worries about the loss of GPS access sparked the genesis of the Galileo system.
“Galileo is made in Europe by Europeans,” ESA spokesman Franco Bonacina said. “If the Americans want to scramble GPS, they can do it whenever they want.”
Galileo will also be more exact than GPS, with precision of about 3 feet (1 meter), compared to about 16 feet (5 meters) with GPS technology, ESA spokesman Franco Bonacina said. With Galileo, for example, rescue services will be able to tell ambulance drivers which lane to use on the highway, he said.
The satellite launch was originally scheduled for Monday but was delayed because of a technical problem in the ground station network. While in orbit, Giove A will test atomic clocks and navigation signals, secure Galileo’s frequencies in space and allow scientists to monitor how radiation affects the craft.
A second satellite named “Giove B” is scheduled to be placed in orbit this spring. Two more satellites will then be launched in 2008 to complete the testing phase, which requires at least four satellites in orbit to guarantee an exact position and time anywhere on earth.
Consumers are expected to be able to buy Galileo receivers in 2008, and they will be able to switch back and forth between GPS and Galileo, similar to how people can change between cell phone networks now, Bonacina said. The Galileo system should be fully functional by 2010.
Three non-EU nations — China, Israel and Ukraine — have also signed on to the program set up by the European Commission and the ESA. Discussions are also under way with India, Morocco, South Korea, Norway and Argentina, the EU says.
The EU is to allocate an initial $1.2 billion from its 2007-2013 budget to fund deployment and commercial operations of the satellite system. The private sector will contribute two-thirds of the funds for the project, which is expected to create more than 150,000 jobs in Europe alone.
EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot praised the program for benefiting both companies and ordinary citizens. “Radionavigation based on Galileo will be a feature of everyday life, helping to avoid traffic jams and tracking dangerous cargos, for example,” he said.
Last year, the EU and United States struck a deal to make Galileo compatible with the U.S. GPS system, ending a trans-Atlantic feud over the issue.
The Pentagon had initially criticized Galileo as unnecessary and a potential security threat during wartime, saying its signals could interfere with the next-generation GPS signals intended for use by the U.S. military.