Image: Soyuz launch
Benoit Tessier / Reuters
A Russian Soyuz rocket lifts off from its pad in French Guiana on Friday, sending the first two of Europe's Galileo navigation satellites into space.
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updated 10/21/2011 10:53:37 AM ET 2011-10-21T14:53:37

A Russian rocket launched the first two satellites of the European Union's Galileo navigation system Friday, after years of waiting for the start of the program billed as the main rival to the ubiquitous American GPS network.

The launch of the Soyuz from French Guiana, on the northern coast of South America, marks the maiden voyage of the Russian rocket outside the former Soviet Union, with European and Russian authorities cheering at liftoff.

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"It is a double-page spread in spatial history, European and Russian," said Laurent Wauquiez, France's higher education minister and former deputy minister for European affairs. "It is without doubt one of the most beautiful stories of cooperation. ... This gives us strength and an extraordinary competitive advantage in the spatial domain."

Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said it was the first time that two teams worked together on the launch of the Soyuz.

Hours after the launch, the rocket's Fregat upper stage put the Galileo IOV-1 PFM and FM2 satellites into orbit in opposite directions.

Jean-Yves Le Gall, chairman and CEO of Arianespace, the commercial arm of the European Space Agency, said the launch "went well."

Antonio Tajani, the EU's industry and enterprise commissioner, called the launch "a great result" that sends "a very strong political message."

"Europe shows that she is capable of managing a big project, just days from the European economic summit," he said.

The EU had all the pomp and speeches about the dawning of a new age prepared for Thursday, but was forced to postpone it for 24 hours because of a leaky valve that kept a Russian Soyuz rocket grounded at the launch site in French Guiana.

The Galileo system has become a symbol of EU infighting, inefficiency and delay, but officials are hoping it will kick off a trans-Atlantic competition with the American GPS network.

GPS has become the global consumer standard in satellite navigation over the past decade, reducing the need for awkward oversized maps and arguments with back seat drivers about whether to turn left or right.

Now, the EU wants Galileo to dominate the future with a system that is more precise and more reliable than GPS, while controlled by civil authorities. It foresees applications ranging from precision seeding on farmland to pinpoint positioning for search-and-rescue missions. On top of that, the EU hopes it will reap a financial windfall.

"If Europe wants to be competitive and independent in the future, the EU needs to have its own satellite navigation system to also create new economic opportunities," said Herbert Reul, head of the EU parliament's industry, research and energy committee.

There are still several more years to wait, but the satellite launch is a major step in getting Galileo on track. It will start operating in 2014 as a free consumer navigation service, with more specialized services to be rolled out until 2020, when it should be fully operational.

After the initial launch, two satellites will go up every quarter as of the end of 2012 until all 30 satellites are up.

The EU hopes its economic impact will stand at about $125 billion (90 billion euros) in industrial revenues and public benefits over the next two decades.

The idea for the program first rallied support in the late 1990s, and its development has been pushed back with delays ever since. When it became clear in 2008 that private investors weren't lining up to finance Galileo, the EU decided taxpayers would underwrite most of the program.

The launch was originally scheduled for last year, but adverse weather kept delaying construction of the Soyuz facility.

The European Commission said development and deployment since 2003 is estimated at well over $6.8 billion (5 billion euros). Maintaining and completing the system is expected to cost $1.35 billion (1 billion euros) a year.

Critics have said the cost overruns were much higher.

"Far from celebrating," officials "who have supported Galileo should be making a public apology to taxpayers for this shocking waste of time, effort and resources," EU legislator Marta Andreasen of the anti-Euro UKIP party said.

Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Kerwin Alcide in Cayenne, French Guiana, contributed to this report, which was also supplemented by msnbc.com.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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