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Sharing Space

Europe Union transportation ministers have given the go-ahead to a satellite system that will make Europe independent from American global positioning systems.


Eye on the world

Seeking to lessen Europe’s technological reliance on the United States, the EU has approved a 3.2 billion euro satellite system that would rival the US’ global positioning system.

The Galileo navigation system will send 30 satellites 25,000 km above the Earth's surface to help guide aircraft, cars and ships to their destinations.

The ministers voted to approve the billion-euro project on Tuesday, only months after the project looked doomed following resistance by the Netherlands, Great Britain and Germany. The three countries had said the project was too expensive and rejected it on economic grounds.

But after the EU transportation ministers agreed that costs for the system, which would have many commercial benefits, should be shared by the private sector, the three countries voted for implementation.

In all, the ministers released €450 million to fund the system at Tuesday’s meeting. About €100 million has already been approved and the inter-governmental European Space Agency has pledged €500 million to bring the plans from the design phase into reality.

"I’m happy that we made a breakthrough," said Germany’s Transportation Minister Kurt Bodewig, who's country pledged €150 million to the project.

Reaching for the heavens

The system will be built by the European Commission, the European Space Agency and private investors over the next six years. The first satellites are scheduled to be launched in 2004 and the system will be completely operational in 2008.

Europe is eager to jump in on what they see as a growing industry that could change lives the way the Internet and mobile phones have. Satellite navigation has scores of benefits, helping everyone from fishers to emergency rescue workers.

Unlike the United States’ GPS and Russia’s almost obsolete Glonass, the Galileo system was not developed with a military use in mind. The fact that it will be run by civilians has the United States worried that enemies could infiltrate the system easily and use the coordinates to launch missile strikes against America.

The US government also sees no point in the new system, as GPS is already available to everyone for free.

“The United States Government sees no compelling need for Galileo, because GPS is expected to meet the needs of users around the world for the foreseeable future," read a State Department statement last month.

Separate, but cooperative

But European industry experts are convinced the system will be secure enough to prevent such a scenario. The European Commission is also stressing that Galileo will work in cooperation with the US GPS system.

At the same time, said one minister, having a separate system will allow Europe to implement their own navigation preferences.

"Only the realization of this civil system will allow the beginning of the development of the use of satellite navigation in conditions which are suitable for Europeans," French Transportation Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot said in a prepared statement. "It will allow the European Union to liberate itself from dependence on the American GPS system."

Industry experts estimate that more than 140,000 jobs will be created by Galileo and bring more than €9 billion into Europe.

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