Europe's global satellite-navigation system, Galileo, has come a step closer to reality with the launch of its first demonstrator spacecraft from Kazakhstan.
Switzerland developed the clocks for Galileo, which is to be Europe's alternative to the global positioning system (GPS) run by the United States military. Galileo should be operational by 2010.
The Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element (Giove-A) – Giove is also Italian for Jupiter – blasted off on top of a Soyuz-Fregat rocket from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 10.19am local time (6.19am Swiss time) on Wednesday morning.
If all goes according to plan, the rocket should climb to 23,222km before releasing Giove-A, a wardrobe-sized box of electronics, into orbit.
This will set in action the most ambitious phase of the Galileo project. The satellite will then secure the radio frequencies allocated to the project under international agreements and test new technologies with Giove-B, set to be launched in April 2006.
Among these technologies is a Swiss atomic clock, the most precise time-measuring device that has ever been in space.
Galileo, a joint initiative by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Union (EU), is the first global satellite-navigation system conceived for civilian needs.
Unlike the two currently available satellite-navigation systems – the American GPS and the Russian Glonass – Galileo will be operated by private enterprise.
This will guarantee that civilians will not have their access to the signals suddenly restricted for military or strategic reasons. During the Balkan conflict GPS signals occasionally vanished.
As a member of the ESA, Switzerland has contributed around €30 million (SFr47 million) towards the project, which is costing around €3.8 billion in public and private finance.
It is the biggest space project ever undertaken in Europe and will eventually comprise a constellation of 30 satellites.
What's more, a Swiss firm has delivered the heart of the satellites: Giove-A and Giove-B, in addition to the first four satellites, are equipped with rubidium atomic clocks made by the Neuchâtel-based firm Temex.
Precise time measurements are essential. Satellite navigation is based on the deployment of a constellation of four satellites (the minimum number needed to guarantee the exact position and time at test locations) and the more accurate the time specifications, the more accurate the fixing of the location.
The project's developers say the deployment of satellites for civilian use will follow similar paths to the introduction of mobile telephones and personal computers.
"Galileo will change our lives," said Giuseppe Viriglio, ESA's director of EU and industrial programmes, at the unveiling of Giove-A in November.
Viriglio said the reliability and above all the range of accuracy – from less than ten centimetres up to one or two metres – would result in many new applications including controlling traffic in addition to navigation and surveillance.
Better signals would lead to smaller and cheaper receivers, which would in turn make satellite navigation more accessible for more people and open the way for new uses that no one has yet even considered.
Experts estimate that this demand will create 140,000 jobs around the world.
swissinfo, Alexandra Stark in Moscow
The Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, built in 1955, is the world's oldest and largest working space launch facility.
Russia has agreed to rent the cosmodrome until 2050 at $115 million (SFr150 million) a year.
Since the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated in 2003, all supply flights for the International Space Station have launched from Baikonur.