KOUROU, French Guiana, Oct. 21 (UPI) -- The first two satellites of Europe's Galileo navigation system, billed as the main rival to GPS, were launched Friday, the European Commission said.
The satellites, the first of 30 the European Space Agency intends to launch, had been scheduled to be sent into orbit from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, Thursday, but a last-minute fueling problem postponed the Russian Soyuz rocket liftoff 24 hours to 7:30 a.m. local time (6:30 a.m. EDT) Friday, the commission said.
The $7.4 billion Galileo system, named after the famous 16th century Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, is intended to provide a high-precision positioning system -- promising global positioning accuracy to within 40 inches -- that European nations can rely on independent from the Russian GLONASS satellite navigation system and the U.S. Global Positioning System, EC officials said.
Both the Russian and U.S. systems can be disabled for commercial users in times of war or political conflict.
Galileo is projected to start offering three services in 2014 -- a free-access system for the general public, a global search-and-rescue function that can transfer distress signals to a rescue coordination center, and an encrypted service for high-level security assignments and possible military use.
Galileo's development and deployment by the European Union and space agency were delayed by years of haggling over financing and distribution of jobs. Maintaining and completing the system is expected to cost $1.4 billion a year, the EC said.
The satellites that launched Friday are named "Thijs" and "Natalia" after an 11-year-old Belgian girl and a 9-year-old Bulgarian, respectively, who are the first winners of the EC's Galileo children's drawing competition.
The other satellites, planned for launch in pairs every three months until 2019, are expected to be named after drawing competition winners from the remaining 25 EU member states, the commission said.