MOSCOW (Reuters) — The European Union launched its first Galileo navigation satellite yesterday, moving to challenge the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS).
Russian space agency Roskosmos said the 1,300-pound satellite entered orbit 15,000 miles above the Earth after its launch on a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The $4.27 billion Galileo program, due to start service in 2008 and eventually deploy 30 satellites, will end Europe’s reliance on the GPS and offer a commercial alternative to the GPS system run by the U.S. military.
“Radio navigation based on Galileo will be a feature of everyday life, helping to avoid traffic jams and tracking dangerous cargos,” said EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot.
GPS now is the only worldwide system offering services ranging from driver assistance to search-and-rescue help. Critics say its services for civilians offer less precision than the ones it offers military or intelligence users.
Galileo will be accurate to 3 feet or less, while the GPS is accurate to within 15 feet.
EU officials also say Galileo would never be switched off for strategic reasons, which might be the case with the GPS.
If successful, the satellite will mark a major step in Europe’s space program, involving firms such as European Aeronautic Defense and Space NV, France’s Thales and Alcatel, Britain’s Inmarsat, Italy’s Finmeccanica and Spain’s AENA and Hispasat.
Galileo’s critics say it is an extravagance that is unlikely to be commercially viable, as GPS is free of charge.
But advocates point to its future role in Europe’s new air-traffic system and plans to integrate it with mobile telephone services.
Like aircraft manufacturer Airbus, Galileo could become a symbol of success that Europe needs at a time of economic stagnation and political discord.
The system will be organized as a public-private partnership. The European Commission wants two-thirds of Galileo’s funding to come from industry and the rest from public coffers.