The first of Europe's constelation of 30 navigation satellites - part of a multi-billion-euro system called Galileo - is due to blast into orbit from Kazakstan tomorrow.
The scheduled launch of the 600kg, British-built satellite on a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur cosmodrome will mark the start of the European Commission and the European Space Agency's most ambitious technical and scientific venture, organisers said.
The Galileo project, which is designed to rival America's Global Positioning System, aims to revolutionise industries including transport and will be used in maritime, rail and other navigation systems. Road-pricing schemes will become easier to run and driverless cars a possibility.
With a host of applications in areas such as fisheries, agriculture, oil prospecting, building and telecommunications, Galileo is expected to create more than 140,000 jobs in Europe and to generate €200bn (£140bn) in services per year by 2013.
Some of Europe's biggest technology firms are behind the project, having won the right to operate the 30 satellites circling the globe in three orbits at an altitude of around 23,000km.
Its designers say the European project will deliver real-time positioning down to within metres with unrivalled accuracy. Galileo is designed to be inter-operable with the two other global navigation systems, America's GPS and Russia's Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass).
The test satellite, built by Surrey Satellite Technology of Guildford, will try out new technologies such as the on-board atomic clocks and signal generators. It will also secure access to the Galileo frequencies allocated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
Known as the Giove-A (Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element) the satellite will circle the planet at an orbit of 23,222km (14,430 miles). A second satellite, Giove-B, built by the European consortium Galileo Industries, is being tested and will be launched early in 2006.
This week's launch is under the control of Surrey Satellite's Technology's own ground station.
Preparations for lift-off were said to be going well. Once the satellite is in orbit, the Galileo signals broadcast back to earth by Giove-A will be carefully analysed by the ground station to make sure they satisfy the criteria laid down by the ITU. European hopes of rivalling US dominance of space in the civil domain rest on the success of the launch.
Despite the massive potential economic benefits, Galileo has been a controversial project, not least with the US which was alarmed at the possibility that the system could have defence applications.
Washington was originally opposed to the European scheme and Britain at first stalled over the initiative, demanding a report by management consultants, though it subsequently threw its weight behind Galileo.
American suspicions were heightened by the fact that the Europeans have included the Chinese in some aspects of the work. Western officials acknowledge privately that China's interest is fuelled by its desire to develop defence capabilities in space, but insist that tight security is observed over all sensitive aspects of the project.
In all, the deployment will cost €3.4bn and the launch phase, which will require €2.2bn, should be complete by 2010. One third of that will be funded by the tax-payer, the rest from private sources.
The project has been managed by the Galileo Joint Undertaking which was set up in 2002 by the EU and the European Space Agency.
The two consortia bidding for the contract to run Galileo merged earlier this year. They were iNavSat, which is comprised of the European aerospace giant EADS, France's Thales and the UK-based sat-comms group Inmarsat, and Eurely which is made up of France's Alcatel, Italy's Finmeccanica and Spain's AENA and Hispasat.
* Galileo is a multi-billion pound joint venture between the European Commission and the European Space Agency under which 30 satellites will be launched by 2010 and services starting as early as 2008.
* It is an alternative to the US's Global Positioning System (GPS), which European countries now rely on. Unlike GPS, however, Galileo will be a civil system and will not be run by the military.
* Much like any other civil project, Galileo will offer guaranteed levels of service. It claims to be much more accurate than GPS, able to pin-point a position to within one metre and to penetrate buildings.
* Europe's new system will, however, run alongside GPS and Russia's Glonass system. This will allow the three systems to rely on each other and benefit from updates and improvements. The US plans to introduce a new generation of GPS satellites soon.
* Much like Airbus and the Ariane rocket programme, which allows Europe to send its own satellites into space, Galileo is seen as a way of Europe asserting its independence.
* The US was originally wary of having a competitor to its GPS system and expressed reservations about a €230m investment by the Chinese.Reuse content