By Francesco Guarascio
KOUROU, French Guiana (Reuters) - Europe launched the first satellites in its Galileo global navigation system on Friday, a first step toward creating a network the European Union hopes will eventually rival the U.S.-run GPS system and establish Europe as a space power.
Disappointment at technical problems that delayed the launch by a day gave way to tears of joy among the assembled officials and technicians as the Galileo satellites blasted-off aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 7.30 a.m. local time (6:30 a.m. EDT).
The two satellites successfully separated from the rocket 3 hours and 49 minutes later at an altitude of over 23,000 km.
"It's an extraordinary event which shows how Europe can achieve important results even in a period of crisis," said a jubilant EU Industry Commissioner Antonio Tajani.
Soon after the launch, Tajani announced plans to sign contracts for the construction of up to eight new satellites out of the total of thirty which will make up the full Galileo network by 2020. Fourteen have already been commissioned.
After lift-off, the rocket could be seen by onlookers for a few seconds, before it disappeared into thick cloud hanging in the tropical skies of French Guiana, which lies near the equator to the north of Brazil.
The rumbling of the Soyuz ST-B engines remained distinctly audible for five minutes after the launch.
"All is in order," said Roberto Lo Verde, a European Space Agency official who has spent seven years at Europe's spaceport in Kourou.
The launch was preceded by heavy rain, but few seemed to care as it had little influence on the success of the lift-off.
"High winds are a concern, but it was not the case today," explained an expert from Arianespace, the French company in charge of the launch.
"In our culture, rain brings luck," said French Research Minister Laurent Wauquiez at a joint news conference after the launch with Russia's deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov, held in Kourou.
European elation was matched by Russian satisfaction -- and relief. In the days preceding the launch, a 400-strong Russian delegation swamped the limited hotel facilities of Kourou, which has a population of 25,000.
They came to attend the first launch of Russia's legendary Soyuz rocket from a spaceport outside the former Soviet Union.
Thursday's delay to Soyuz's 1,777th launch was caused by a technical failure in the rocket's fuelling system.
A team of 200 Russian technicians and engineers worked around the clock to ensure the rocket took off successfully 24 hours later.
Russia's Ivanov said the launch marked "the beginning of a cooperation that will go much further."
Soyuz means 'union' in Russian -- a reflection of the partnership Moscow and the EU are hoping to carve out, although relations are not always as smooth as hoped for.
Rather than build a new rocket from scratch, Europe decided to build a 467 million euro ($649 million) launch pad for Soyuz in French Guiana, where it already launches its Ariane rocket family.
The Russian State Space Agency (Roscomos) will receive tens of millions of euros for each rocket that is built and shipped to Kourou from its Samara Space Center.
Despite repeated reassurances that Galileo will complement rather than challenge the US Global Positioning System (GPS), the Europeans harbor bold ambitions.
The thirty satellites they plan to send into orbit have the potential to offer more precise and reliable services than those available from the 24 satellites in the GPS system.
"We are working -- together with our Russian friends -- to ensure GPS becomes the American Galileo," said Wauquiez, taking aim at the often-used description of Galileo as "the European GPS."
But the Galileo program, officially begun in 2003, has been delayed by funding disputes that were only resolved when the EU agreed to foot the entire bill with taxpayers' money after commercial backers withdrew in 2007.
Over 5 billion euro ($6.9 billion) has already been earmarked for the project up to 2013, to cover the development of the system and the launching of 24 satellites needed for Galileo to become operational from 2014.
Between 2014 and 2020, the Commission has asked for 1 billion euros annually from the EU budget to cover the cost of completing the network of 30 satellites by 2019, and to pay for maintainable and replacement.
Publicly, EU officials have said there is currently no estimate of the cost of running Galileo beyond 2020, but privately they admit the final cost could run to tens of billions of euros.
"We have a cost plan for Galileo for thirty years. It is not limited to the 2014-2020 budget. Annual costs are estimated to be around 1 billion euro a year, also after 2020," one EU official told Reuters this week.
Europe's ambitions in space have emerged gradually, mirroring the EU project as a whole.
"The space age and the EU are the same age," the European Commission said in a paper underlining that the Treaty of Rome -- a cornerstone of post-war European integration -- was signed in 1957, the same year the space race started.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Charlie Dunmore)