The successful launch Dec. 28 of the first test platform for Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation constellation is worth noting both for its technical and symbolic significance.

Most importantly, the Giove-A spacecraft will preserve Europe’s reservation of Galileo operating frequencies that otherwise would have expired in mid 2006. The spacecraft also will test atomic-clock and radio-signal technology as well as characterize the radiation environment of Galileo’s planned orbit.

Symbolically, Giove-A serves as an example of Europe’s push for independence and self-sufficiency in space.

And while the launch of a European spacecraft aboard a Russian rocket is hardly unusual, it is notable in this instance because it underscores Galileo’s emerging status as a global program led by Europe. China, India, Israel and Ukraine have joined the project, and more non-European partners likely will be signed in the months and years ahead. The more Galileo progresses the easier it becomes to envision Europe leading the way on other global efforts in space exploration and utilization.

To be sure, some of the hardest work in making Galileo a reality still lies ahead, in no small part because of its cost — $4 billion and rising. Further, it remains to be seen whether Galileo can be operated successfully as a business, particularly in the face of competition from the U.S. Defense Department’s GPS satellite navigation system, which provides increasingly accurate civilian signals free of charge.

But progress is progress, and the accomplishment of launching the first Galileo test satellite is not diminished by the issues and questions still looming over the program. One thing there can be little doubt of is that once Galileo is up and operating, the global satellite navigation infrastructure, which includes GPS, will be much improved.