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Four Galileo spacecraft ordered

The Galileo satellite navigation system took another important step forward on Tuesday with the go-ahead being given to build its first four spacecraft.

The satellites will be launched in 2008 with the whole constellation of 30 expected in orbit by the decade’s end.

The “authorisation to proceed” came with the signing of a 150m-euro contract between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Galileo Industries. The latter has been charged with building the system’s infrastructure.

Galileo will be compatible and interoperable with the US GPS, improving the accuracy and reliability of navigation and timing signals received across the planet.

The new constellation will be a joint venture between ESA and the European Union (EU).

On 10 December, EU transport ministers gave their approval to the project. Tuesday’s preliminary contract signed in Paris for the so-called In-Orbit-Verification-Phase is the next step.

A full contract, worth more than a billion euros, should be signed next year; and this will clear the way for the whole constellation to be put in orbit.

The new European constellation is expected to drive a multi-billion-euro industry in which receivers find their way into many more markets – from consumer devices such as mobile phones to safety-critical applications such as guided trains and buses. Analysts estimate the industrial spin-offs could create 150,000 jobs.