With Satellite Launch, E.U. Positions Itself To Compete
Thursday, December 29, 2005
PARIS, Dec. 28 -- The European Union on Wednesday launched the first satellite in its $4.5 billion Galileo global positioning system, a bid to enhance the world's growing reliance on satellite navigation and break the U.S. monopoly on space-based networks.
Officials of the European Space Agency said the Galileo system -- scheduled to begin operation in 2008 -- will double the world's satellite coverage, now provided by the U.S. military's Global Positioning System.
Galileo will be more accurate than its American counterpart for civilian uses and so will allow such enhanced services as tracing emergency calls to within a yard of their origin and helping tourists find an ATM in a strange city using a chip inserted into a cell phone, the officials said.
Many Europeans see political significance in the project, too: The world's only civilian-controlled system will give Europe and its partner nations independence from the United States, which has warned it could diminish or cut off GPS satellite coverage to countries considered enemies in times of national emergency.
Galileo represents "the independence of the European Union," French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Wednesday after the 1,300-pound test satellite soared into orbit atop a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on the steppes of Kazakhstan.
Plans call for the system to eventually include necklaces of 30 satellites above Earth. The project will also give a major boost to the European aerospace industry.
The European Space Agency says it will guarantee operation of Galileo at all times except in case of the "direst emergency." It did not define what such an emergency would be.
Galileo has been delayed by internal bickering among European governments over financing and by U.S. opposition. The Pentagon complained that Galileo's signals could interfere with the next-generation military GPS system, posing a potential security threat during wartime. The United States and Europe eventually reached a cooperative working agreement for the two systems.
The launch comes at a time when Russia is moving forward with a positioning system known as GLONASS. On Sunday it put into orbit three new satellites for the network, which is scheduled to begin operating in 2010.
Operators of the new systems foresee global cooperation. "We are preparing agreements with Americans and Europeans which will allow the creation of a single global navigation system in the future," Anatoly Perminov, head of Russia's Roskosmos space agency, told the ITAR-Tass news agency after Sunday's launch.
With more satellites circling the globe, civilians almost anywhere on the planet could switch navigation systems as easily as mobile phones shift between service providers, according to European space agency officials.
The U.S. system, currently the only one in operation, was designed for the military, and in its encrypted mode is used to guide warplanes through the air and precision weapons to their targets.