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EU thumbs-up for satellites

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The European Council has at last given the green light to the Galileo satellite constellation. Ministers on Friday finalised the technical specifications of the system, and approved the construction and launch of the satellites. The decision means the first satellites should go up in 2006.

Galileo will provide an EU-controlled alternative to the US GPS satellite navigation system, designed for civilian use, and will offer more detailed resolution that its US counterpart.

The project will cost an estimated €3.7bn, of which €2.1bn will go on deployment. Two thirds of this investment will come from industry. The final exploitation costs are likely to run to €220m per year. The public sector will make an exceptional contribution of €500m, the European Commission said, but from then on, the costs will be covered entirely by the private sector.

Jacques Barrot, vice-president of the Commission, said Galileo demonstrated what could be accomplished when Europeans worked together. "GALILEO is without a doubt the most wonderful European technological project," he said. "It will be as much of a technological revolution as mobile telephony."

The project has been subject to delays while the US and Europe battled over the specification of the new network. The US argued that if the Galileo constellation worked on the same frequencies as the GPS network, there could be interference between the two systems. It also voiced concern about the third party countries that might be allowed access to the navigation system, particularly during a war. The network could, in theory, be used to locate the US' troops, it said.

However, in February it emerged that jamming the frequency proposed for the Galileo data would interfere with communications on still-to-be-introduced US military channels. The US insistence on separate channels prompted speculation that the military effectively wanted an "off switch" for the competing network. This notion was not dispelled when the US Air Force refused to rule out shooting down neutral satellites, if they were being used by unfriendly nations during a conflict. ®

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