A Russian rocket launched the first two satellites of the European Union's Galileo navigation system 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.
"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 is the first time that two teams work together on the launch of the Soyuz.
The rocket is expected to place into orbit the Galileo IOV-1 PFM and FM2 satellites during a nearly four-hour mission. The two satellites will be released in opposite directions.
"The first part of this mission went well," Jean-Yves Le Gall, chairman and CEO of Arianespace, the commercial arm of the European Space Agency, said in a brief statement to officials before returning to the control room.
He said the rocket is expected to travel over Asia, Indonesia and the Indian Ocean.
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 €90 billion 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 European Commission said development and deployment since 2003 is estimated at well over €5 billion. Maintaining and completing the system is expected to cost €1 billion 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.
Officials hope to delay the launch of the Russian Soyuz rocket by only 24 hours, although a new date will be announced once the investigation is complete, said Jean-Yves Le Gall, chairman and CEO of Arianespace, the commercial arm of the European Space Agency.
The launch was originally scheduled for last year, but adverse weather kept delaying construction of the Soyuz facility.