The first two satellites to form the basis of the European Galileo satellite navigation system were successfully launched on Friday from a European Space Agency base in French Guiana.
The satellites were lifted into orbit by a Russian Soyuz launch vehicle — the first Russian rockets ever to launch from Europe's spaceport in French Guiana — at 10.30pm BST on Friday. The satellites were released into their target orbit of 23, 222km above the earth, just 3 hours and 49 minutes after lift-off.
The satellites are the first two components of the European Galileo satellite navigation system that will eventually be used to provide an alternative to the US-controlled Global Positioning System (GPS). Other countries, such as Russia and China are currently working on revamping or extending their own systems for global use.
"This launch represents a lot for Europe: 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," Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of ESA, said in a statement.
Currently jointly controlled by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES), the satellites will soon undergo tests as part of the In-Orbit Validation (IOV) phase, designed to put the system's space, ground and user segments through their paces. Once initial tasks have been completed, control will then be passed to SpaceOpal, for the rockets to undergo a further 90 days of testing before being commissioned for the IOV phase.
The next two Galileo satellites are scheduled for launch in summer 2012, ESA said. When complete, the Galileo system will provide better coverage and accuracy than the current US GPS system, CNES added in a separate statement.