The successful launch at 06:19 CET of the forerunner ‘GIOVE -A’ satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome moves Europe’s GALILEO programme of civil satellites for navigation, positioning and timing, towards realisation, with the first satellite hardware now in orbit.

The mission of the satellite is to assure the availability of the frequencies which Europe has requested for the eventual 30 satellite constellation from the International Telecommunications Union, the specialised United Nations body which regulates frequency allocations world-wide, and to prove certain key technologies in orbit. A second test satellite, GIOVE B, with a configuration closer to that of the anticipated operational satellites, is scheduled for launch in May.

Designed and built by Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL), GIOVE-A will demonstrate technologies needed for the GALILEO system, such as rubidium-based atomic clocks. Once the operational three orbit constellation of 30 satellites is completed, positions accurate to 1 metre or less will be possible. This will permit use of the system for ‘safety critical’ systems – running trains, guiding cars and landing planes.

GIOVE-A also carries a panel dedicating it to the memory of a young British engineer, Tom Fairbairn, who worked on the satellite’s structural design, but was killed with his parents by the December 26 tsunami of 2004 while on holiday in Thailand.

GALILEO is listed as the initial ‘flagship mission’ of the European Union’s developing space policy, and is carried out in close association with the Commission’s partner, the European Space Agency. Once operational, it will contribute to the policies of the Commission in such varied areas as transport (better traffic management, in-car navigation systems, tracking of containers, of dangerous goods), air traffic control information, intelligent farming (targeted crop and fertiliser dosing), fisheries and environmental monitoring.

(‘GIOVE’: ‘GALILEO In-Orbit Validation Element’: but also the Italian name of Jupiter, thus paying tribute again to Galileo Galilei, whose observations of the moons of Jupiter subsequently provided navigational information to sea-farers for three hundred years before the availability of sufficiently accurate mechanical time-pieces)