The EC will continue to seek financial backing for Europe's version of the US GPS (global positioning system) from member states of the EU between now and March 2002, avoiding the possibility that the £1.6bn project could be scrubbed by the end of this year.

EC spokesman Gilles Gantelet said EU heads of state who met in Belgium over the weekend endorsed "the strategic importance" of the satellite-based Galileo location system, but agreed to wait until March to obtain financing.

The system is designed to provide precise position information independent of GPS, which is controlled by the US Department of Defense.

At a meeting last month the EC was unable to obtain the funding it needed for Galileo from a majority of the transport ministers of its member states (see above hyperlink for story). But the EC said it thinks the additional time will allow them to get the backing.

Last week Loyala de Palacio, EU energy and transport minister, said Galileo might "go up in smoke" if it didn't receive funding by the end of the year.

But Gantelet said the project could continue if member states approve funding by the later date of March 2002. If Galileo doesn't receive funding by then, it could well be cancelled, he said.

The EU is responsible for about half the funding for Galileo, with the European Space Agency picking up the other half.

The ESA approved $466 million for its share of Galileo last month.

Besides ensuring access to navigation signals free from potential interference or manipulation in time of war, Galileo promises improved accuracy for all users of satellite navigation worldwide through the introduction of receivers capable of picking up signals from both the US GPS constellation and the Galileo satellites.