The project is meant to rival the U.S. Global Positioning System.

Europe aims to launch the first satellite in its Galileo
program late this year aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, the European Space
Agency said on Thursday.

Galileo is Europe’s plan to create
its own global navigation satellite system, with uses ranging from helping
motorists navigate electronic maps to assisting search-and-rescue operations.

It is scheduled to go into service
in 2008 and eventually will have 30 satellites orbiting almost 24,000 kilometers
above the Earth.

A tight schedule requires the first
satellite to start transmitting signals by next June or the project risks
forfeiting its allocation of radio frequency rights.

‘We must get at least one in orbit
by June,’ an ESA spokesman said, adding that the aim was a launch by the
end of 2005.

‘The next step is to have four to
do the in-orbit validation and, once we are satisfied with this, we can launch
the remaining ones,’ he said.

The project is meant to rival the
U.S. Global Positioning System. It will be interoperable with GPS as well
as GLONASS, Russia’s global satellite navigation system.

Europe is undertaking Galileo to
ensure independent, uninterrupted access to such a system, which the other
two military-operated systems cannot guarantee.

The ESA cites studies showing that
Galileo could bring economic and social benefits worth 74 billion euros ($89
billion) by 2020, including more efficient transport and lower pollution,
while creating 140,000 jobs.

The ESA spokesman said the first
satellite would be used to test systems and would be launched from Baikonur
in Kazakhstan.

Commercial Soyuz launch services
are provided by European-Russian company Starsem, in which Airbus parent
firm EADS and European launch company Arianespace control a combined 50 percent.

Galileo took a major step forward
this week when a consortium presented a bid to carry out the bulk of the
work for the project, which is being managed by the European Commission’s
and the ESA’s Galileo Joint Undertaking. A final deal is expected this year.

The consortium includes EADS, Alcatel
and Thales of France, Britain’s Inmarsat, Finmeccanica of Italy and Spain’s
AENA and Hispasat.

The EU has enlisted international
partners including China and Israel to help fund Galileo, which the European
Commission says will cost 2.1 billion euros to deploy.

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