Paid for entirely by the European Commission – the price tag is currently around five billion euros, Galileo should provide better coverage and greater precision than its US rival GPS, thanks to more satellites, orbiting at a higher level.
Astrophysicist Dirk Frimout said Galileo is not about duplicating the American system: “Of course we have the American GPS but it is good to have more than one system in order to have more reliability plus there are so many applications the two systems will complement each other, rather than be in competition.”
GPS uses 24 satellites while Galileo expects to eventually have 30 in orbit some 23,000 kilometres up.
Another double launch is set to take place early in 2012. As soon as the four satellites are in place the all-important in-orbit validation phase can begin.
Dr Pascale Defraigne of Royal Observatory of Belgium said: “In order for the system to be operational it must comprise a minimum of 18 satellites, so with two satellites the system is still not completely operational but the signals are going to be used. Now we are moving into the validation phase. The signals will be measured on the ground, all the parameters will be validated.”
Galileo could be used in maritime transport, for pinpoint positioning for search-and-rescue operations, precision seeding on farms, or simply to find the quickest way from A to B, without the need for a map.
If everything goes to plan, Galileo should be operating as a free consumer navigation service by 2014 with more specialised services rolled out over the following six years until it is fully operational.