The first two satellites of the European Union's Galileo navigation system have been launched from French Guiana after years of waiting for the start of the programme billed as the main rival to GPS.
The launch of the Soyuz marked the maiden voyage of a Russian rocket outside the former Soviet Union, with European and Russian authorities cheering at lift-off. The rocket is expected to place into orbit the Galileo IOV-1 PFM and FM2 satellites during a nearly four-hour mission that will release them in opposite directions.
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 on the northern coast of South America.
The Galileo system has become a symbol of EU in-fighting, inefficiency and delay, but officials are hoping it will kick off a transatlantic competition with the ubiquitous 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 European Parliament's industry, research and energy committee.
There are still several 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 specialised 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 euros in industrial revenues and public benefits over the next two decades.