Ariane 5 launches for record 6th time this year
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: December 21, 2007
Flying for the sixth and final time this year, an Ariane 5 rocket pierced a mostly cloudy evening sky with a picture-perfect launch to deploy two communications satellites serving populations in Africa and North America.
Friday's countdown was halted twice in its final minutes by launch zone and safety violations, resulting in a 28-minute delay from the flight's appointed launch time.
The rocket flew east from the South American spaceport, shedding its spent solid-fueled boosters and nose cone in the first few minutes of flight. Video cameras in Kourou captured spectacular images of the Ariane 5's fiery contrail after it was illuminated by sunlight about 90 seconds after liftoff.
Cutoff of the Vulcain engine occurred on schedule just shy of the ten-minute point in the mission, followed moments later by stage separation and ignition of the storable propellant upper stage.
After firing for nearly 17 minutes, the upper stage's Aestus engine shut down to prepare for the dual-payload deployment sequence. The African Rascom-QAF 1 spacecraft was released first, followed four minutes later by the separation of the Horizons 2 satellite.
The Ariane 5 was right on the mark, and Arianespace officials declared the launch a success.
"We're happy to share this new success with you," said Jean-Yves Le Gall, Arianespace chairman and CEO. "Thank you for your choice and thank you for your trust, which we have again renewed."
Launch contracts for both payloads were signed earlier this year. Horizons 2 officials switched their satellite to Arianespace from Land Launch's Zenit rocket after a similar Sea Launch booster exploded on the launch pad in January.
Rascom-QAF 1 will thrust itself into a circular geostationary orbit during the next few weeks. Its permanent home in space will be along the equator at 2.85 degrees east longitude, where its high-tech array of communications instruments can reach users across Africa.
After several weeks of testing, the satellite should be declared operational by early February, according to Pascale Sourisse, president and CEO of Thales Alenia Space, the spacecraft's prime contractor.
The nearly 7,000-pound craft will be operated by RascomStar-QAF, the first Pan-African satellite company, founded by a consortium of African and European investors. The company aims to expand telephone, Internet and direct-to-home television broadcasting services to both urban and rural Africans at affordable costs.
"Rascom-QAF 1 will contribute to bridging the digital divide within Africa and between Africa and the world," said Faraj Elamari, CEO of RascomStar-QAF.
One of the primary shareholders is the African Regional Organization for Satellite Communications, or RASCOM. The organization includes 46 telecommunications operators across Africa. Other partners include Libya's leading telecommunications provider, a Libya-based African investment fund, and Thales Alenia Space.
The Rascom-QAF 1 is the first step in setting up the space infrastructure to support the company's mission to link poor rural and urban Africans with other parts of the world. The company also owns network stations on the ground to distribute the communications services across the continent.
"We aim to connect over 150,000 isolated villages and towns to our network via low-cost telecommunications," Elamari said.
Officials expect the satellite to last for at least 15 years, and its communications payload includes 12 Ku-band and eight C-band transponders.
Horizons 2 will broadcast high-definition television and broadband Internet services to customers across the continental United States, southern Canada and the Caribbean.
The satellite will be operated by Horizons 2 Satellite LLC, a joint company founded by Intelsat and JSAT Corp., a leading Japanese satellite operator. The 5,079-pound craft was manufactured by Orbital Sciences Corp.
"A brave and very strong partnership between the two companies led to the successful launch we have just witnessed," said Kiyoshi Isozaki, president and CEO of JSAT.
Horizons 2 will begin a planned 15-year operational mission early next year after the craft parks itself in the geostationary satellite belt above the equator at 74 degrees west longitude. The new spacecraft will replace the 17-year-old SBS 6 satellite, already seven years beyond its original life expectancy.
With its suite of 20 Ku-band transponders, Horizons 2 will focus on video, telephony and data services for corporate and government customers. The satellite will augment current services for U.S. customers by increasing data quality and bandwidth.
"JSAT and Intelsat's goal is to provide customers with the best combined satellite distribution solutions available to satisfy the growing demand for media and network content distribution services in the competitive North American region," Isozaki said.
Approximately 40 percent of the craft's payload capacity is already leased or sold, and the remaining transponders are expected to be claimed within one year, said Denis Boulanger, Horizons 2 mission manager at Intelsat.
Friday's launch was the final mission for Arianespace this year. The European space launch firm managed nine successful launches in 2007 - six Ariane 5 missions and three Soyuz flights launched from Kazakhstan for its Starsem subsidiary.
"Launching six times this year was a challenge, and as you can see on my face, we have won," Le Gall said.
The nine missions orbited 21 satellites for government and commercial customers on six continents.
Arianespace will begin 2008 with the critical launch of the first European cargo vessel to the international space station. That launch is officially scheduled for no earlier than the end of January, but preparations are progressing toward a target launch date of Feb. 14.
The timetable depends on the Automated Transfer Vehicle's processing and the space shuttle launch schedule early next year, which remains in flux as engineers work to overcome a faulty fuel sensor system.
Arianespace expects to launch at least seven Ariane 5 rockets next year as the company builds to a stable launch rate of eight Ariane missions per year by 2009, Le Gall said.