The second test satellite for Europe's planned Galileo satnav constellation went into orbit at the weekend. The GIOVE-B (Galileo In Orbit Validation Element B) satellite took off aboard a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur in Kazakhstan on Saturday.
The GIOVE sats are intended to prove the technology which will be used in the operational Galileo birds in coming years, and the testbeds also keep hold of the programme's frequency slots. GIOVE-A is already in orbit, and after serious delays to GIOVE-B a backup spacecraft, GIOVE-A2, was ordered from Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) - builder of GIOVE-A and poster-child of the fledgling UK space industry.
SSTL has now been bought by EADS Astrium, the continental aerospace behemoth which built GIOVE-B.
The Galileo programme now seems certain to go ahead, after a prolonged and painful shift from partly-private financing of the construction to public funds taken from unspent EU farm subsidies. This money would normally have been returned to donor nations, with the UK, Germany and the Netherlands as the biggest three. London MPs have expressed doubt as to whether the UK will receive value for the money it will pay, but have acknowledged that the British government doesn't actually have any choice about Galileo under EU funding rules.
Galileo is expected to offer some tech advantages over the existing American GPS, though the US can be expected to catch up in time as new generations of GPS become operational. It will be possible for many future civilian users to make use of both sat fleets simultaneously, thus getting much better coverage.
Formerly, Galileo was to be a guaranteed service - unlike GPS, which the US military can turn off in such areas and times as it chooses. However, it seems possible that in fact Brussels will want to retain a Galileo off-switch as an EU policy tool. ®