Europe's Top Rocket Blasts Off for Space

Europe's most powerful rocket, carrying a payload of precious satellites, soared into space Saturday from its South American base in a successful launch more than two years after its inaugural flight ended in disaster.

Just a half-hour after liftoff from its base in Kourou, French Guiana, the Ariane-5 ECA (search) — the world's most powerful commercial launcher — had placed its two satellites into orbit.

The control room broke into applause and tense technicians shared smiles and handshakes after data showed the payload, a U.S.-Spanish satellite and a European Space Agency (search) micro-satellite, had been successfully lobbed into orbit 31 minutes after the liftoff.

"This is the success we all waited for, and I thank all those who contributed," said Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of Arianespace (search), the European rocket's commercial arm.

"This launch erases the failure of December 2002," he said.

A rocket launched Dec. 11, 2002, went out of control and was destroyed three minutes after it blasted off. Two telecommunications satellites were lost in the doomed inaugural flight.

Since then, experts have refined the rocket Arianespace is counting on to maintain its edge in the lucrative satellite launcher market. Its competitors include such U.S. launchers as Boeing's Delta IV.

The 780-ton Ariane-5 ECA can lob a 10-ton payload into space, meaning it can carry larger satellites two at a time, assuring competitiveness in the multibillion dollar satellite launching market.

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin hailed the successful launch as "the mark of a winning Europe."

The unmanned rocket had been set to take off on Friday, but was delayed for 24 hours because of an anomaly discovered in the ground equipment, Arianespace said.