By Franck Leconte
KOUROU, French Guiana (Reuters) - A Russian-made Soyuz rocket blasted off from French Guiana on Friday and placed in orbit two satellites for Europe's Galileo global position system, space officials said.
It was the third time that Soyuz, which first flew in 1966 and traces its roots back even further to the earliest Cold War intercontinental ballistic missiles, had been launched from outside its former Soviet bases.
The rocket lifted off at 3.15 p.m. (1815 GMT) from a launch pad at Europe's space base near Kourou, French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America.
After a nearly four-hour flight the satellites separated from the rocket, bringing to four the number of Galileo satellites now in orbit. Two other satellites for the project were launched from Guiana last year, also aboard a Soyuz rocket.
Galileo, once fully operational later this decade, aims to give Europeans autonomy from the U.S. government-controlled Global Positioning System (GPS) and other systems created by Russia and China.
Positioning satellites provide accurate navigation to ships, aircraft, trucks and private cars. They are also used extensively by the military, notably to target guided missiles.
Galileo, named after the visionary 17th-century Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, is billed by European Space Agency (ESA) as the means "to free Europe of dependence on America's Global Positioning System".
Latest estimates put the price tag for Galileo at over 20 billion euros for what is planned to be a 30-satellite constellation, to be fully operational by 2020.
European aerospace giant EADS is the prime contractor with major subcontracting by Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture company 67 percent held by France's Thales and Italy's Finmeccanica with a 33 percent share.
Included are the costs of the satellites, launches by Soyuz or Ariane-5 rockets in Guiana and annual operating costs of 800 million euros.
With many ESA member states in economic difficulties, questions have grown over the necessity of a system whose services are already assured by the U.S. GPS constellation.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Miles; editing by Andrew Roche)