The first two Full Operating Capability Galileo satellites have been launched on Friday, confirming Europe’s ambition to start early operations of its own satnav system this autumn.
The two satellites, named Doresa and Milena by two children who had won a pan-European competition to name the spacecraft, will join the four validation satellites already in orbit.
The spacecraft were lifted by a Russia-manufactured Soyuz rocket from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guyana, and placed to their preliminary orbit.
Eventually, the satellites will be circling the Earth at the altitude of about 23,500km.
The launch of the two satellites, to be followed by another two by the end of this year, is a major milestone on the way toward the completion of the controversial project, marred from early days by organisational and budgetary problems.
"The launch of these two satellites initiates Galileo's full operational capability phase. It gives new impetus to the Galileo programme, a truly European project which has built on EU countries' resources to maximise the benefits for EU citizens,” said European Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship Ferdinando Nelli Feroci.
“Galileo operates at a technological frontier and provides applications with huge economic potential, supporting the EU objectives of growth and competitiveness.”
Earlier this week, the European Commission announced a €500m deal between the Galileo programme and Arianspace, the manufacturer of Europe’s Ariane rocket, to buy three Ariane 5 launchers to speed up the delivery of the remaining satellites to orbit.
Unlike Souyz, which can only lift two Galileo spacecraft at one time, Ariane 5 can carry four, reducing the number of launches needed to deliver the whole constellation.
The first Ariane-Galileo launch is expected to take place as early as 2015. According to the European Commission, the cooperation will reduce the reliance of Galileo on foreign entities, meaning the currently out of favour Russia.
"This agreement involves the marriage of launchers and satellites engineered and built in Europe, a move towards the independence of the European Union’s space sector,” Feroci said.
Unlike US GPS, which is run by military, Galileo is designed as a purely civilian constellation. Offering better precision than GPS, the constellation will also be used for search and rescue operations as part of the International Cospas Sarsat Programme.
Basic, low precision Galileo services will be available for free to everyone while high precision capabilities would be subject to a fee.
The European Union, backed by the European Space Agency, has pushed through the plan to create its own global navigation satellite system (GNSS) constellation despite the dislike of the USA, who wished to reserve itself the right to switch off navigation satellites if national security is deemed at risk.
In 2006, the project was nearly halted after the original public-private partnership responsible for its delivery fell apart.
The Galileo constellation, jointly owned by the European Commission and the European Space Agency will consist of 30 satellites with full scale operations expected to commence in 2019. The two satellites launched today should be turned on as early as October this year.
Since 2011, four Galileo satellites have been launched and used as part of the In-Orbit Validation phase, allowing the first autonomous position fix to be calculated based on Galileo-only signals in March 2013.
The system is designed to be interoperable with GPS and receivers with correct chipsets will be able to use signals from both constellations.