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Russian rocket deploys first Galileo satellites from Kourou

A Russian rocket on Friday deployed the first two satellites in Europe’s Galileo geopositioning system after its maiden launch from the European space base, mission chiefs said.

Flight managers applauded loudly as the two satellites were placed in orbit nearly four hours after a Soyuz rocket, a veteran from the dawn of the space age, lifted off from the base in French Guiana.

“This is the story of Europe which succeeds and knows how to cooperate,” Jean-Yves Le Gall, chief executive of Arianespace, which markets launches at Kourou, told reporters. “What a road we have travelled.”

As mission controllers counted off the final seconds, Soyuz’s main engines ignited, a cluster of umbilical masts flipped back and the rocket clawed its way skywards through pounding tropical rain.

The launch marks an unprecedented step in space cooperation, being the first by a Soyuz — a national treasure for Russia — beyond the country’s bases at Plesetsk and Baikonur.

“This launch represents a lot for Europe,” said European Space Agency (ESA) chief Jean-Jacques Dordain.

“We have placed in orbit the first two satellites of Galileo, a system that will position our continent as a world-class player in the strategic domain of satellite navigation, a domain with huge economic perspectives.”

Friday’s launch came after a 24-hour postponement caused by a faulty valve designed to disconnect fuel lines to the rocket’s third stage just before flight.

Soyuz traces its lineage to 1957 with Sputnik, the first satellite, and to the first manned flight, by Yuri Gagarin, in 1961.

Friday’s launch was the 1,777th in the Soyuz saga. It has a success rate of 94.4 percent.

The rocket was deployed at a specially-built pad at Kourou under a 2003 deal intended to complete Arianespace’s marketing range.

The contract gives the firm an off-the-shelf medium-range rocket alongside a heavy lifter, the Ariane 5, and a lightweight launcher, the Vega, due to make its maiden flight early next year.

Arianespace says it has orders for 14 Soyuz launches from Kourou, which will follow at the rhythm of two to three per year.

They include the third and fourth satellites in the Galileo constellation, due to be hoisted in mid-2012.

Galileo, budgeted at 5.4 billion euros (7.2 billion dollars), is intended to give Europe independence in satellite navigation, a vital component of the 21st-century economy, from the US Global Positioning System (GPS).

When completed in 2020, the European Union-funded system will comprise 27 operational satellites and three spares.

They will orbit at a height of 23,200 kilometres (14,400 miles) in three orbital planes, providing accuracy to within a metre (3.25 feet), compared to three to eight metres (10 and 26 feet) for the GPS, according to official websites.

EU Industry Commissioner Antonio Tajani on Friday said his department would shortly issue a tender to aerospace firms for supplying “six or eight” Galileo satellites.

Friday’s launch “shows Europe’s ability to assure the management of a major economic project,” he said, in a veiled response to critics who cite cost overruns and contest even the need for Galileo.

According to the European Commission, the market for geopositioning services will grow from 130 billion euros (180 billion dollars) in 2010 to 240 billion euros (330 billion dollars) in 2020.