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Arianespace Soyuz rocket launches Galileo satellites into orbit in picturesque nighttime liftoff

An Arianespace Soyuz rocket launched into the nighttime sky over French Guiana late Saturday (Dec. 4) to deliver two new satellites into orbit for Europe's Galileo navigation system. 

The Soyuz rocket lifted off at 7:19 p.m. EST (0019 GMT) from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, lighting up the evening sky with orange flames as it soared into orbit with the new Galileo navigation satellites. They were expected to reach their final orbit just under 4 hours after liftoff.

"The beast in action," Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël wrote on Twitter of the Soyuz rocket after the launch. "On board our Soyuz, two Galileo satellites for [the European Space Agency], on behalf of the EU Commission."

The mission, if successful, the two new Galileo satellites will grow the European global satellite navigation satellite to 28 satellites. The nearly six-year-old constellation serves 2.3 billion users around the world, Arianespace said in launch documentation (opens in new tab).

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Arianespace used a Soyuz rocket produced by the Progress Space Rocket Center, which is a part of the Russian space agency Roscosmos. This is the 14th time this partnership aimed to send a Galileo mission to space, Arianespace said.

The mission is being performed for the European Space Agency (ESA), on behalf of the European Commission, to bring "strategic autonomy and sovereignty to the EU [European Union] citizens and its member states," Arianespace said of the mission.

Galileo is similar to the United States Global Positioning System (GPS) and the Russian Glonass system, but aims to give Europeans a homemade alternative should one of these other systems become unavailable to them.

An artist's illustration of a Galileo navigation satellite in orbit. (Image credit: Arianespace)

The 26 Galileo satellites now in orbit were launched both by Soyuz rockets and by the company's own heavy-lift rocket, Ariane 5. Arianespace plans six more Galileo satellites in the coming years using Soyuz and a next-generation rocket Ariane 6 version known as Ariane 62. The first flight of the Ariane 6 rocket is expected now in 2022, delayed from 2020.

Tonight's mission, known as Galileo FOC-M9, will be the 61st mission launched by Arianespace on behalf of ESA and will carry the 83rd and 84th satellites for the partnership. The delivered satellites will join the rest of the Galileo constellation in medium Earth orbit at 14,429 miles (23,222 kilometers), according to ESA documentation (opens in new tab).

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Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc (opens in new tab). in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.