Satellite launch puts EU on own course

Posted in Other , Europe | 29-Dec-05 | Author: James Kanter| Source: International Herald Tribune

A Russian Soyuz rocket carrying the test GIOVE-A satellite, blasts off at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
PARIS The European Union on Wednesday launched the first test satellite aimed at reducing Europe's reliance on American navigation technology, as part of a multi-billion euro program that analysts say marks an important waypoint in the evolution of a multi-polar world.

The project, dubbed Galileo, will work in tandem with the U.S. Global Positioning System and a similar Russian network. The European Union has long been wary of relying solely on the U.S. system because its is under military control and can be cut off without warning. Last year, President George W. Bush said the U.S. GPS satellites could be disabled during national crises to keep terrorists from using the technology.

Europeans are hoping Galileo will ease "an uncomfortableness with a technology on which we are all dependent but that the U.S. could theoretically switch off at any time," said Timothy Garden, a spokesman on defense issues for the Liberal Democrat party in the British House of Lords.

The device, named Giove A, launched on a Soyuz rocket from a site in Kazakhstan, is equipped with two atomic clocks that will generate test signals during a two-year trial.

The Paris-based European Space Agency plans to launch a second test satellite, Giove B, before sending a total of 30 satellites into orbit to run the system, which could begin commercial operations as soon as 2008.

Galileo's developers say it is designed for civilian rather than military use. It will offer more precise data than the U.S. system, allowing users to navigate to the nearest meter, or 3.3 feet, rather than the nearest five meters, now the standard in GPS technology. That could improve the data used to land airplanes, locate ships and direct motorists.

Even so, analysts warned that the system risked duplicating the American GPS, which is free of charge, and which the U.S. government is expected to upgrade over the next decade.

The prospect of competition in the market for selling mapping data could undermine the value of Galileo, which will rely on creation of new businesses in areas such as oil prospecting and marine navigation for the system's long-term success.

Yet with countries like China and Israel contributing financing to Galileo, and with European governments aiming to develop technology that is more accurate and reliable than the current U.S. system, analysts said the project was emblematic of how the development of strategic technologies could be shared among nations.

Rachel Villain, an analyst with Euroconsult, a Paris-based satellite and space consulting firm, said China probably would supply some of the hardware to help construct and launch the 30 satellites that will make up Galileo.

Israel already has signed an agreement to access the system, said Villain, adding that Brazil, South Korea, Canada and Australia also have expressed interest.

But she said the flipside of the Europeans' campaign to make the system appeal to the broadest spectrum of governments and local service providers is that some countries and companies could lose interest in the project if it were to fall behind schedule, delaying the delivery of highly precise signals.

Skepticism among consumers about the intrusiveness of new technologies is another challenge for Galileo, said Paul Everitt, the director of communications for SBAC, a Britain-based trade association for the aerospace industry. Using the technology for systems that track drivers to make sure they paid their road tolls could be undermined by "broader public concerns about Big Brother," Everitt warned.

Ultimately, Villain said, consumers could expect to benefit with most future navigation devices relying on both the U.S. system and Galileo in order to create highly accurate maps.

President Jacques Chirac of France voiced "great satisfaction" after the 600-kilogram, or 1,300 pound, satellite reached orbit on Wednesday, saying that "space is an essential part of the great European project."

The primary contractors on the E3.8 billion, or $4.5 billion, project are European aerospace giant EADS, Thales and Alcatel of France, Inmarsat of Britain, the Italian contractor Finmeccanica and the Spanish companies AENA and Hispasat.

About one-third of the project is being financed by European taxpayers.