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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 December 2005, 13:21 GMT
Galileo puts UK on space map
By Helen Briggs
BBC News science reporter, Guildford

Galileo launch (AP)

Engineers in the control room are fixed on their computers as the clock counts down the remaining seconds to launch.

Thousands of miles away, on the snowy steppes of Kazakhstan, the spacecraft they designed and built sits on top of a Russian rocket, ready to be blasted into orbit.

As it lifts off the pad, and heads up into the clear blue sky, the atmosphere of tension and excitement in the building turns quickly to relief.

The smell of coffee and bacon sandwiches begins to drift down the corridor, as space scientists and their families celebrate a successful start to the mission in a very British way.

This is the green-fringed campus of the University of Surrey in Guildford, where many of the 200 employees of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) gathered to watch the launch of Giove-A via a live transmission from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The lift-off of the test satellite for Europe's satellite navigation system, Galileo, marks a meteoric rise for the spin-off company from the University of Surrey and a key milestone in the 2.3bn (3.4bn euros; $4bn) venture.

High expectations

Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, who set up the company in 1985, said it was quite an experience to be responsible for the first step of Europe's biggest and most expensive space project to date.

"The initial feeling is relief that the launch has gone well," he said shortly after the Soyuz rocket cleared the launch pad.

This satellite is demonstrating critical technology, which is flying now for the first time
Sylvain Loddo, Galileo systems manager
"This is probably the world's most reliable rocket so the expectation was high but so far everything has gone smoothly.

"Our work really will start in a couple of hours' time when the satellite separates from the launch vehicle and then we will be able to see it from our ground station here in the UK."

SSTL specialises in building low-cost mini-satellites. Having designed and built Giove-A in 30 months, the company will now operate the satellite over the course of its two-year mission.

Giove-A (SSTL)
SSTL is a small British company employing just 200 people
"Part of SSTL's success is having everything close at hand - being able to do everything from the design, manufacture and testing of spacecraft, through to the operations," said John Paffett of SSTL.

"Our whole ethos has been on cost-effective entry to space, cost-effective launches and cost-effective operations, so having a small self-contained operations centre is a key part of the activity."

Sylvain Loddo, systems manager for Galileo, was one of the many experts from the European Space Agency in the control room.

"This satellite is demonstrating critical technology, which is flying now for the first time," he said.

"This technology is key for the performances of the future Galileo system."

Student 'inspiration'

Giove-A will be used to secure relevant Galileo frequencies and validate key technologies such as rubidium atomic clocks.

I think it shows that the UK can still be at the forefront in science and space technology
Prof Chris Snowden, Surrey University
The constellation's second test satellite, Giove-B, is due to be launched early next year. It was developed by Galileo Industries, a consortium that includes UK-based EADS-Astrium.

Surrey University Vice-Chancellor Professor Chris Snowden said he hoped the project would inspire a new generation of British space engineers and entrepreneurs.

Plane in sky (BBC)
A European Commission and European Space Agency project
30 satellites to be launched in batches by end of 2010
Will work alongside US GPS and Russian Glonass systems
Promises real-time positioning down to less than a metre
Guaranteed under all but most extreme circumstances
Suitable for safety-critical roles where lives depend on service
"It's exciting to see that Surrey Satellite has done so well and has established a very high profile in the international space community," he said.

"Surrey and satellites is a connection which the students make very readily all over the world. This is an international stage we are on today in higher education, so having a successful programme like this heightens the level of interest for students.

"I hope it will encourage them to pursue this type of career. I think it shows that the UK can still be at the forefront in science and space technology despite what we see going on in the rest of the world."

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