For this second time this month, the workhorse Ariane 5 rocket carried out a double satellite deployment mission just like clockwork on Thursday and set the stage to break its record for flights in a single year.
The hydrogen-fueled main engine roared to life at the appointed moment of 2000 GMT (4:00 p.m. EDT), followed seven seconds later by ignition of the twin solid rocket boosters to begin thundering out of the Guiana Space Center in Kourou on the northeastern coast of South America.
The booster climbed steeply through the late afternoon clouds and headed downrange for a half-hour trek into geosynchronous transfer orbit to deliver the NSS 12 and Thor 6 commercial communications satellites.
"This latest success confirms that Ariane 5 is the commercial market's only operational launcher capable of simultaneously launching two large direct television broadcast satellites," said Jean-Yves Le Gall, chairman and CEO of Arianespace. "It also confirms that Arianespace is the only launch services company capable of orbiting four commercial satellites in four weeks - which I also think is a new record."
The Ariane achieved a highly elliptical orbit stretching 22,346 miles at its farthest point from Earth and 155 miles at the nearest. The satellites will use their onboard engines to circularize the orbit and reach geostationary slots.
Riding atop the dual payload stack was NSS 12, a powerful spacecraft to be operated by SES World Skies to cover most of the Eastern Hemisphere for commercial and government customers stretching from Europe to the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Australia.
The satellite was built to replace the NSS 8 craft destroyed in the catastrophic liftoff explosion by a Sea Launch Zenit 3SL rocket in early 2007.
"NSS 12 represents a special commitment that our CEO, Robert Bednarek, made on January 30, 2007, when we lost the NSS 8 satellite. Less than three years later, we are here in Kourou to mark the launch of NSS 12," said Scott Sprague, senior vice president of global sales SES World Skies.
The company invited some of its customers to the Ariane base to watch the critical and long-awaited launch.
"It's great to see so many of our customers here today. They are in the audience, they are here to witness its beginning," said Steve Collar, senior vice president for market development, SES World Skies.
Manufactured by Space Systems/Loral with a 15-year design life, the 12,400-pound satellite carries 48 Ku-band and 40 C-band transponders.
It will be parked in geostationary orbit over the equator at 57 degrees East longitude to take the place of the aging NSS 703 satellite, which was launched aboard an Atlas 2AS rocket from Cape Canaveral in 1994.
"NSS 12 will be going to a really important slot for SES World Skies," Collar said. "It will be replacing NSS 703, which has been a really key satellite for us. But NSS 12 provides substantial expansion from that orbital slot."
Sharing the ride to orbit aboard the Ariane 5 rocket Thursday was Thor 6, a communications satellite to serve the Nordic countries by operator Telenor Satellite Broadcasting.
The satellite will replace the Thor 3 spacecraft launched aboard a Delta 2 rocket from Cape Canaveral in 1998.
Built by Thales Alenia Space and weighing 6,725 pounds at launch, Thor 6 is bound for a geostationary orbital slot at 1 degree West longitude.
"Thor 6 will be very important for our business as it will be the largest satellite in the Thor fleet with its 36 transponders. So Thor 6 will have nearly three times as many transponders as Thor 3 satellite has, which it is set to replace," said Peter Olsen, satellite mission director from Telenor.
"Not only will Thor 6 provide this replacement capacity, it also provides additional capacity and capability to expand into the Central and Eastern European market and also will enable the ongoing transition from standard definition to high definition television."
For Arianespace, the launch Thursday represented the 48th flight for the Ariane 5 and the sixth in 2009. A record-setting seventh mission of the year is scheduled for early December to haul the French military reconnaissance satellite Helios 2B into orbit.
"We set the goal of increasing our launch rate, and are on track to meet this challenge," Le Gall said Thursday. "Whenever you take up a challenge, there are people who doubt. Being able to win over these doubters is great satisfaction."
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