First satellite of European GPS competitor launched

Munich (Germany) - The European Union and the European Space Agency (ESA) today sent the first satellite of its Galileo system into space. Galileo is planned to grow into a civil, globally available positioning system that provides more accurate and more reliable localization data than the current Global Positioning System (GPS).

The satellite GIOVE-A was launched at 0:19 AM EST in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. A Soyuz rocket transported the device, which will serve as test platform, to a height of 23,000 km (14,291 miles). GIOVE-A will be mainly used to secure frequency bands for Galileo and is expected to be fully operational by mid of January of 2006. The first satellite is likely to be soon joined by GIOVE-B, which carries technology to determine the localization of a device within one or two inches.

The European Union believes that Galileo will be ready for commercial testing in 2008. A globally available positioning service is planned to come online in 2010, when Galileo will span across 30 satellites. The total cost of the system is estimated at 3.6 billion Euros ($4.27 billion).

The idea for Galileo grew out of Europe's desire to create a positioning system that would not depend on decisions and technology progress in the US. According to Sigmar Wittig, chairman of the German space company DLR and chairman of the ESA advisory panel said that Galileo will be able to pinpoint the location of devices to enable more precise applications for example in traffic management, agriculture, and improve the coordination of rescue operations during and after natural disasters.

Compared to GPS, which was developed in the early 1960s and initially operated by the U.S. Department of Defense, the structure of both systems is similar. Both ideas center around satellites being positioned in six earth-centered orbital planes with four operation satellites and one open satellite slot in each region for a total capacity of 30 satellites. However, at this time, the GPS system currently consists of only 24 satellites.

In contrast to GPS, Galileo has no military component, but is planned as commercial service, that will offer fee-based services as well. The European Union promotes the positioning system as more accurate and more reliable than GPS. For example, the service will also be able to locate devices within buildings, which is generally not possible with GPS. In fact, GPS is of little use in any location where buildings grow into sky on both sides of the street.