BRUSSELS, Dec 28 (AFP): Europe Wednesday launched the first test satellite of its 3.8 billion-euro Galileo navigation system, designed to rival the reigning US system and put positioning by satellite into civilian hands.
After being mired in delays for over two years, the Galileo project finally got off the ground when a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying the test GIOVE-A satellite blasted off from Russia's launch site at Baikonur, Kazakhstan, at 0519 GMT.
"All parametres are nominal," Marco Falcone of the European Space Agency (ESA) told reporters, meaning all was going well.
Mission control officials announced several hours later that the probe had been successfully placed into its definitive orbit 23,000 kilometres (14,000 miles) from Earth.
However, it will take more than seven hours before the mission could be determined a success or failure, when the satellite's solar panels and transmission systems are verified as functioning properly.
The GIOVE-A satellite -- the name an acronym for Galileo In Orbit Validation Element but also the Italian name for the planet Jupiter whose moons were discovered by the famous astronomer Galileo -- will test various technologies including an atomic clock that ESA says is the most exact ever sent into space.
The launcher's first three stages separated as scheduled, around nine minutes after the launch.
Galileo will allow Europe to gain strategic independence, as satellites have become indispensable for regulating air, maritime and lately automobile traffic.
The launch, originally scheduled for Monday, had been delayed by two days after the discovery of anomalies in the solar stations tasked with following the satellite's progress in space.
This is the first time that the ESA, which runs the Galileo project's initial phase along with the European Union, is launching a satellite for a medium orbit.
Galileo will both compete with and complement the current US Global Positioning System (GPS), which was originally developed for military targeting and positioning.
The European system was the first to be designed for strictly civilian use and will cost an estimated 3.8 billion euros (4.5 billion dollars).
The United States and the EU last year reached an accord to adopt common operating standards for the two systems, overcoming American concerns that the Galileo system will compromise the security of GPS, on which the US military is heavily dependent.
Galileo will also be compatible with the Russian GLONASS network, which like the American system is controlled by military operators that cannot guarantee to maintain an uninterrupted service.