A Proton rocket blasted off from a snow-covered launch pad early Wednesday with a pair of Russian civil communications satellites, beginning a lengthy 9-hour mission to put the spacecraft on track to their new home 22,300 miles above Earth.
The Proton booster ignited its six first stage engines and roared skyward at 0003 GMT (though it was 7:03 p.m. Tuesday night EST) from Complex 200 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Liftoff occurred in the predawn hours at the launch site.
The rocket?s three core stages powered the launcher into space within the first 10 minutes of the mission, leaving the Breeze M upper stage to complete a series of burns to place the Express AM44 and Express MD1 satellites into the targeted orbit.
The Breeze M upper stage is scheduled to release Express AM44 at about 0915 GMT. Deployment of Express MD1 should occur about 15 minutes later, according to the Russian space agency.
Express AM44 was built by Reshetnev Co., a Russian aerospace company formerly known as NPO PM. Khrunichev, the Russian firm that also builds Proton rockets, manufactured Express MD1.
Thales Alenia Space provided the communications payloads for both satellites, which will be operated by the Russian Satellite Communications Co. for government and commercial users.
Express AM44, weighing 5,582 pounds at launch, will use its own propulsion system to park itself in geostationary orbit along the equator at 11 degrees west longitude.
The craft will eventually replace the aging Express A3 satellite at that orbital location, which serves customers across Russia, former Soviet states, Europe, Asia and Africa.
The satellite carries a communications payload of 16 Ku-band, 10 C-band and a single L-band transponder. The gear is designed to provide digital television and radio broadcasting, data networking, videoconferencing and Internet services for at least 12 years.
Express MD1 is the first member of a new series of smaller communications satellites to be launched for RSCC. The 2,513-pound satellite will be positioned in geostationary orbit at 80 degrees east longitude.
The satellite?s eight C-band and one L-band transponder will provide secure communications for senior government leaders in western Russia.
RSCC also plans to launch the identical Express MD2 satellite, but the company has not released a launch date for that mission.
The company is also developing Express AM4, a massive high-powered satellite built by EADS Astrium. That launch is scheduled for late 2010.
The next Proton mission could occur later this month with a Russian military communications satellite.
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