Galileo blasts Europe into new era of space competition with US

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The Independent Online

The first step towards a satellite navigation system "made in Europe by Europeans" was taken yesterday as the British-built Giove-A became the first spacecraft to be blasted into orbit as part of the EU's biggest space mission.

The test satellite, one of a 30-strong constellation planned for Europe's multibillion-euro Galileo project, was fired into the atmosphere from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. After rising through clear skies for four hours, the 600kg satellite was released into orbit and began transmitting signals to Earth.

The successful lift-off was hailed as the EU's first step towards ending its reliance on the US Global Positioning Service (GPS) navigation. It is strictly controlled by the US military, and European scientists are determined to rival it.

"Galileo is made in Europe by Europeans," the spokesman for the European Space Agency, Franco Bonacina, said. "If the Americans want to scramble GPS, they can do it whenever they want. Our system is a civilian-based system run by a civilian authority and would be completely autonomous."

As it orbits the Earth from 14,300 miles, Giove-A - it stands for Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element - will help test atomic clocks and navigation signals and secure Galileo's frequencies in space. Its progress will be a crucial indication as to the likely success of the overall European space mission, planned to go into service in 2008.

Galileo's supporters say the system will more than double GPS coverage and will be more exact than the US system, with a precision of up to one metre (compared with GPS technology's five metres). They say the project will improve coverage in high-latitude areas such as northern Europe and cities where skyscrapers can block signals. It could become a worldwide symbol of European success, badly needed at a time of economic stagnation and political conflict.

"The launch of Giove-A is the proof that Europe can deliver ambitious projects to the benefit of its citizens and companies," the EU transport commissioner, Jacques Barrot, said. "Radio navigation based on Galileo will be a feature of everyday life, helping avoid traffic jams and tracking dangerous cargos."

Galileo's critics say it is an unnecessary exercise in political grandeur, unlikely to be commercially viable. Its launch was the result of an agreement last year between Washington and Brussels that put an end to a long-running transatlantic feud over GPS's control by the US military.