Europe’s long-awaited answer to America’s GPS, called Galileo, has finally been switched on this week after four new satellites came online.
They were launched last month, joining another 14 in orbit that had been launched over the past five years. They will now provide limited location services for smartphones and in-car systems, with the full system set to be operational in 2020 when the full complement of 24 Galileo satellites will be in orbit.
“Today’s announcement marks the transition from a test system to one that is operational,” said Paul Verhoef, ESA’s Director of the Galileo Programme and Navigation-related Activities, in a statement.
“Still, much work remains to be done. The entire constellation needs to be deployed, the ground infrastructure needs to be completed and the overall system needs to be tested and verified.”
The $11 billion program has faced severe delays since it was first conceived in 1999, but is now up and running – in a primitive form at least. Galileo is intended as a European counterpart to the successful US Global Positioning System (GPS) of 24 satellites.
How Galileo will cover the globe. ESA
The 24 Galileo satellites – each with an atomic clock on board – orbit at a height of 23,000 kilometers (14,000 miles), and are run by the European Space Agency (ESA). The current 18 satellites will be aided by America’s GPS satellites at first, but eventually it will offer a service that is more precise than anything on offer today.
This will include reducing the amount of time taken to locate a person lost at sea or in the mountains from three hours to 10 minutes. The signals will also be accessible from locations not possible today, including road tunnels and beside high buildings, reported France 24.
Galileo will ultimately reduce geolocation precision down to 1 meter (3.3 feet), compared to the several meters offered by GPS at the moment. It’s intended to be useful for upcoming technologies like driverless cars, too.