EU to launch first two Galileo satellites today, as sat-nav system lurches forward

The EU's Galileo satellite navigation system has been beset by delays and budget overruns in recent months, but its future is looking slightly brighter, now that its first two satellites are primed for launch. The European Space Agency is expected to send the satellites into space today, as part of a long-term project that will cost an estimated €7 billion (around $9.6 billion). Slated to take off from Kourou, French Guiana, the pair of satellites will ride on the back of a Russian rocket to an altitude of nearly 15,000 miles, where they'll test system functions both in space and on Earth. If all goes according to plan, they'll also become Galileo's first operational satellites, paving the way, officials hope, for many more to follow. In fact, the European Commission is looking to complete the 30-satellite constellation by the year 2019, with two scheduled to launch during every quarter, beginning in 2012. The idea, of course, is to offer Europeans an alternative to US-operated GPS, with a free consumer service scheduled to launch in 2014, followed by a more precise, paid service in 2020. Nevertheless, budgetary concerns loom large over the project, which, according to the EC, has already racked up a development and deployment bill of over €5 billion ($6.8 billion), since 2003. The commission will present a finalized proposal to EU member governments by the end of the year, in the hopes of obtaining that extra €7 billion, though it may face more acute criticism, considering today's dour economic climate. It remains unlikely, however, that Galileo will be totally shut down, as the EU says it could bring in an extra €90 billion over the next 20 years.