MOSCOW (AFP) Dec 28, 2005
Europe launched Wednesday the first test satellite of its Galileo navigation system, designed to rival the reigning US system and put positioning by satellite into civilian hands.
After being mired in delays for over two years, the Galileo project finally got off the ground when a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying the test GIOVE-A satellite blasted off from Russia's launch site at Baikonur, Kazakhstan, at
"All parameters are nominal," Marco Falcone of the European Space Agency (ESA) told reporters, meaning all was going well.
However, it will take more than seven hours before the mission could be determined a success or failure, when the satellite's solar panels and transmission systems are verified as functioning properly.
The GIOVE-A satellite -- the name an acronym for Galileo In Orbit Validation Element but also the Italian name for the planet Jupiter whose moons were discovered by the famous astronomer Galileo -- will test various technologies including an atomic clock that ESA says is the most exact ever sent into space.
The launcher's first three stages separated as scheduled, around nine minutes after the launch.
The fourth stage, dubbed Fregat, would take the satellite to medium orbit, at the altitude of 23,000 kilometers (14,000 miles), which it was due to reach three hours and 42 minutes after the launch.
Galileo will allow Europe to gain strategic independence, as the satellite system had become indispensable for regulating air, maritime and lately automobile traffic.
The launch, originally scheduled for Monday, had been delayed by two days after the discovery of anomalies in the solar stations tasked with following the satellite's progress in space.
This is the first time that the ESA, which co-pilots the Galileo project's initial phase with the European Union, is launching a satellite for a medium orbit, which would guarantee stability to the satellite but is little explored as to its radio-electric environment.
Galileo will both compete with and complement the current US Global Positioning System (GPS), which was originally developed for military targeting and positioning.
The European system was the first to be designed for strictly civilian use and will cost an estimated 3.8 billion euros (4.5 billion dollars).
The United States and the EU last year reached an accord to adopt common operating standards for the two systems, overcoming American concerns that the Galileo system will compromise the security of GPS, on which the US military is heavily dependent.
Galileo will also be compatible with the Russian GLONASS network, which like the American system is controlled by military operators that cannot guarantee to maintain an uninterrupted service.
According to ESA, Galileo, which will be under civilian control, is designed to deliver real-time positioning accuracy down to the meter (yard) range, which is unprecedented for a publicly available system.
It will guarantee service under all but the most extreme circumstances and will inform users within seconds of a failure of any satellite, which will make it especially valuable where safety is crucial, such as running trains, guiding cars and landing aircraft.
The project's next phase will be the launch of a second GIOVE-B test satellite in 2006, followed by four working satellites by 2008. The ultimate goal remains a constellation of 30 satellites encircling the globe.
The date for opening the network to commercial use has been pushed back two years to 2010.
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