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Soyuz rocket blasts off from French Guiana

By Franck Leconte

KOUROU, French Guiana (Reuters) - A Russian-made Soyuz rocket blasted off from French Guiana on Saturday and placed into orbit an Earth observation satellite for France, space officials said.

It is the fourth time that Soyuz, which first flew in 1966 and traces its roots back even further to the earliest Cold War intercontinental ballistic missiles, has been launched from outside its former Soviet bases.

The rocket lifted off at 11:02 p.m. (0202 GMT on Sunday) from a launch pad at Europe's space base near Kourou, French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America.

A first launch attempt on Friday was scrubbed due to a technical problem.

After a 55-minute flight, the Pleiades 1B, a one-ton observation satellite ordered by the French Space Agency (CNES) that will used extensively by the French defense ministry, separated from the rocket.

It will also be used by Spain's defense ministry as well as by civilian and commercial customers.

Billed by CNES as "a significant improvement in technology over previous generation satellites," Pleiades 1B is designed to relay to Earth high-resolution images as small as 70 centimeters (27 inches) from a 20-km (12-mile) wide Earth scan.

"It (Pleiades) is an innovative concept in that we share resources but we are able to separate the content for confidentiality," Lionel Peret, head of the Pleiades program for CNES, told Reuters.

It is the second of two satellites in the Pleiades series. The first was launched in December 2011.

European aerospace giant EADS Astrium was the prime contractor for the satellite.

(Reporting by Franck Leconte; additional reporting by Alexander Miles; Editing by Eric Beech)