PARIS — Europe’s nearly decade-long project to operate Russia’s venerable Soyuz rocket from European soil came to fruition Oct. 21 with a successful inaugural flight from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana.

The Soyuz rocket, equipped with a Fregat upper stage, placed two European Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellites into medium Earth orbit at an altitude of about 23,200 kilometers inclined 56 degrees relative to the equator.

The launch was the 1,777th Soyuz liftoff in the vehicle’s 50-year history.

The two Galileo spacecraft, each weighing about 700 kilograms, were reported healthy in orbit, emitting signals and pointing toward the sun with their solar panels deployed, according to Didier Faivre, director of navigation at the 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA).

The satellites will spend the next three months undergoing a thorough checkout of their on-board systems and being maneuvered into final operating position.

Two identical satellites are set for launch, also aboard a Soyuz vehicle, from the European spaceport in 2012. These four spacecraft, built by a consortium led by Astrium Satellites and Thales Alenia Space, form Galileo’s In-Orbit Validation phase.

ESA and the commission of the 27-nation European Union have 14 additional Galileo satellites under contract with OHB AG of Germany. With the successful Soyuz launch, European Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani, speaking afterward from the Guiana spaceport, said the commission would order more spacecraft by Feb. 1 with the money remaining in Galileo’s currently approved budget of 3.4 billion euros ($4.6 billion).

How many satellites will be ordered depends in part on the commission’s calculation of exactly how much money remains in the budget. Earlier this year, ESA officials said they expected to have 250 million euros remaining.

ESA officials have been pressuring the two industrial teams to bring their bids to “substantially below” 40 million euros per satellite, which would permit an order of six to eight additional spacecraft, Faivre said.

In an Oct. 21 interview, Faivre said ESA also expects to sign a contract with Astrium Space Transportation — prime contractor for Europe’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket — to adapt the vehicle to carry four Galileo satellites at a time. This work is estimated to cost around 50 million euros. ESA and the European Commission have said they would prefer to have the option of launching Galileo satellites with either the Ariane 5 or Soyuz.

Following the contract to modify the Ariane 5 for Galileo, the commission and ESA would negotiate a launch option with the Arianespace commercial launch consortium of Evry, France, for the launch of four Galileo satellites at a date to be determined.

As currently designed, Galileo is a constellation of 27 operational satellites plus three in-orbit spares. The commission will attempt to win its governments’ support for further Galileo funding as it prepares its next seven-year budget, to begin in 2014. That budget will determine whether the Galileo constellation will feature the full complement of 30 satellites by 2015-2016.

French Research Minister Laurent Wauquiez, in post-launch remarks at the Guiana Space Center, stressed Galileo’s importance to European autonomy by reiterating a threat that U.S. government officials have long denied exists.

Europe’s current dependence on the U.S. GPS satellite navigation system, Wauquiez said, raises the possibility that access could be cut off “overnight, and we could lose our autonomy, which would create difficulties for European strategic independence. This is unacceptable.”

U.S. government officials have long said that any move to cut off European access to GPS is almost inconceivable given its importance to the global economy, and that in any event years of advance notice would be given.

The idea of importing Soyuz to operate alongside Europe’s Ariane 5 vehicle originated in France and also found some of its most vehement opposition there. For the French government, which is paying 55 percent of the project’s total costs of around 600 million euros, a Europeanized Soyuz gives European governments a less-expensive way to launch civil and military science and observation satellites compared with the Ariane 5. The latter vehicle is optimized to launch two communications satellites at a time to geostationary orbit.

On the commercial market, Soyuz provides the Arianespace launch consortium with the same advantage when seeking government satellite customers. In addition, the Soyuz operated from the Guiana Space Center can lift a 3,000-kilogram telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit, nearly double what the same Soyuz could carry from its Baikonur Cosmodrome spaceport in Kazakhstan.

Arianespace has 13 more dedicated Soyuz missions booked from the European spaceport. In addition, 12 commercial telecommunications satellites in Arianespace’s current backlog could be launched either as a second passenger on an Ariane 5 or as the sole customer on a Soyuz rocket.

Arianespace also continues to operate commercial Soyuz launches from the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome through a French-Russian company called Starsem.

The opposition to a European Soyuz came from some of the Ariane 5 component builders, who viewed the Russian vehicle as competition for the Ariane 5. Others said European governments already have trouble supporting their own rocket industrial base without financing the import of Russian technology.

Meanwhile, Russian parliamentarians have expressed reservations about handing over the world’s most reliable rocket to Europe at what they view as below-value price.

These voices have not been entirely silenced.

In a year’s time, ESA government ministers are expected to meet to determine the agency’s mid-term program direction. Among the proposals is likely to be a request from France that design work begin on a successor to Ariane 5. Current thinking in France is that the new vehicle, which will not enter service until around 2025, will be modular in design and be capable of placing a satellite weighing between 3,000 and 8,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, doing away with the need for Soyuz.



Insiders Hard-pressed To Say Why European Soyuz Was Delayed

European Governments Trim Galileo System Cost Overruns

Europe Positioned To Order Additional Galileo Satellites Soon

French Prime Minister Says European Soyuz Will Complement, not Compete with, Ariane 5

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.