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Russian Rocket Lifts European GPS Satellite into Orbit

The first part of Europe's global satellite navigation system has lifted-off from Russia. The British-built craft is the first of two planned test satellites.

The mighty roar signaled a successful launch from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

And that was greeted with cheers at the control center in Guildford, England, located not far from London.

The 600-kilogram test craft will undergo various tasks over the next few months. It was built by the small British firm, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited or SSTL for short.

But the overall effort is being funded by the European Union and the European Space Agency. The public-private partnership also includes China and five other non-European nations.

Currently, the only worldwide player in the field is the United States. Its Global Positioning System networks allow users to measure distances and positions with great precision.

While the U.S. initially maintained that an additional navigation system would be unnecessary, SSTL Chief Executive Officer Martin Sweeting disagrees.

"It is quite important that Europe has an independent capability on this," he said. "To be reliant just on one system, particularly if it is a military system, does not make a lot of sense. Europe's economy is really bound up in satellite timing and you know, navigation is just one of the applications."

The U.S. and EU have agreed to make the two systems compatible.

Professor Chris Snowden from the University of Surrey says China's participation in the program is significant.

"China is going to become a world power in its own right and we see that developing as inevitable that will happen," he said. "I think that it is actually important that Europe engages in this also to maintain its position."

The idea is to test this prototype and another to be launched later in 2006. If the scientists are then satisfied, some 30 satellites are envisioned being sent into to orbit to form the basis of the navigation network.

And the applications are really limitless, everything from aiding rescue efforts to managing traffic on roads.