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First Galileo satellites launched, Europe's answer to GPS

The European Union's satellite navigation system came a step closer to reality today, as the first two Galileo satellites were launched into orbit. Originally, the launch was scheduled for yesterday, but problems with a leaky valve meant plans had to be put on hold for 24 hours to avoid any issues. Galileo is aimed for a 2014 switch-on, with the project finished in 2019.

Today's launch is the latest chapter in Galileo's story, which has seen several setbacks and funding problems. The system isn't without its critics; experts say that Galileo will need an extra €7 billion to make it through to the end of the decade. By then, all 30 satellites should be in orbit, and the EU will be prepared to start offering its two-tier system where clients can access higher-precision capabilities for a fee.

So what does this mean for global positioning? For a start, Galileo is far more precise than GPS. The two systems working together will improve coverage in cities and other problematic areas like northern Europe. More specialised features like being able to send out a distress signal should come in handy for exotic expeditions. Also, the neutrality of the project is seen as a bonus as the US-run GPS always runs the risk of being disabled during a war.

Whether or not Galileo will be making its way into sat navs remains to be seen, but GPS giant TomTom has expressed an interest. Speaking to BusinessWeek, TomTom spokesperson Kristina Nilsson said: "We are following it closely. GPS is accurate, but we always track all new technical developments." 

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