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ENVISAT Launched

In a crucial first mission since a launch failure last year, the world’s largest environmental satellite — and Europe’s most expensive space project — blasted off without a hitch late on Thursday.

An Ariane-5 rocket successfully launched a $2.2 billion environment monitoring satellite from French Guiana to garner information on greenhouse gasses, global warming and the status of the ozone layer. Twelve hours later, the U.S. space shuttle Columbia roared off its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying seven astronauts on an arduous 11-day mission to service and repair the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope (news – web sites).

The latest Ariane rocket has failed three times in its 11-mission career, exploding on its 1996 maiden flight and missing the orbit for two satellites last July, and another failure could have cast serious doubts on its reliability.

But what one expert called the “white-knuckle launch,” the first since last July, went off like clockwork from the European Space Agency (ESA) launch centre in Kourou, French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America.

Billed by ESA as “an unprecedented instrument to study the earth’s environment,” the ENVISAT satellite will orbit the earth every 100 minutes collecting data on the environment.

Dubbed a “health check on planet earth” it will monitor the oceans, Arctic and Antarctic ice melting and rain forests.

The data gathered by the satellite will be made available to the world scientific community at archiving centers throughout Europe and via the Internet.

ENVISAT is the largest and most expensive satellite ever built in Western Europe. It was built by a 50-company team led by European satellite manufacturer Astrium and is designed to operate in sun-synchronous orbit for five years.