Four satellites soared into space Tuesday (June 25) on top of a Soyuz rocket launched from the jungle of South America, beginning the assembly of a fleet of spacecraft equipped to beam broadband connectivity to billions of people beyond the reach of affordable high-speed Internet services.
The flight began at 1927:03 GMT (3:27:03 p.m. EDT) with a fiery liftoff from the Guiana Space Center, a European-run spaceport on the northeast coast of South America. The 151-foot-tall Soyuz launcher disappeared into clouds over the jungle launch base, where inclement weather forced two delays in the mission - first from Monday due to unfavorable high-altitude winds, then a 33-minute delay Tuesday to wait for a storm to pass.
The three-stage launcher, flying in a modern configuration with a digital flight control system and an upgraded RD-0124 third stage engine, deployed a Fregat upper stage about nine minutes after liftoff to complete the task of placing the four 1,543-pound satellites in an unusual 4,865-mile-high orbit over the equator. [See Amazing Rocket Launch Photos of 2013]
From there, the satellites will begin linking customers in developing countries with the global Internet infrastructure, according to O3b Networks Ltd., the startup communications firm which owns the spacecraft.
"There is no better reward for Arianespace than seeing the happy faces of our customers in the front row," said Stephane Israel, chairman and CEO of Arianespace, the French company responsible for marketing and operating Soyuz launcher missions from the Guiana Space Center.
It was the second Soyuz rocket launch in less than two hours, coming after a similar Russian-built launcher took off from Kazakhstan with an Earth observation satellite.
Officials declared both of Tuesday's launches successful, and the four O3b satellites are healthy and deployed their power-generating solar panels after separation from the Soyuz rocket and Fregat upper stage, according to Sandrine Bielecki, a spokesperson for Thales Alenia Space, builder of the O3b spacecraft.
Within about a week, controllers at Thales will guide the satellites into higher orbits about 5,000 miles above Earth, before activating each craft's 10 Ka-band transponders and 12 antennas for about three weeks of payload testing.
Then O3b officials will wait for another launch of four identical satellites on another Soyuz rocket in September. By late this year, the company aims to launch commercial service of the network, and with the addition of another four satellites next year, O3b will be on a path toward revolutionizing Internet access in the developing world, according to Steve Collar, CEO of O3b Networks, based in the Channel Islands.
Collar said one of the first regions to receive access to O3b bandwidth will be the Cook Islands, a tiny island nation in the South Pacific bypassed by terrestrial fiber-optic networks.
"That's all about to change as we open the pipe and deliver about six times more capacity as the Cook Islands have had up to this point," Collar said.
In the coming years, O3b satellites will reach customers across the planet between 45 degrees north and south latitude. Officials say O3b offers the benefits of fiber-optic lines without the costs to maintain them.
Founded in 2007 by high-technology entrepreneur Greg Wyler, O3b Networks has raised more than $1.3 billion in financing from shareholders and lenders, including SES, Google, HSBC and Liberty Global.
O3b has ordered 12 satellites - including the four spacecraft launched Tuesday - from Thales Alenia Space and booked three Soyuz launches with Arianespace. [2013 Rocket Launch Schedule]
"For the last few years, our life at O3b has been about building stuff," Collar said in a post-launch speech. "We've been building satellites, we've been building ground stations, we've been building infrastructure, we've been building our company, and from today, that all changes. From today, our business is about you guys," he said, referring to O3b's customers.
O3b's name stands for the "other 3 billion," referring to the number of people beyond the reach of fiber connectivity.
"The Internet is now established as the key infrastructure to support every sector of the economy and is a fundamental driver of innovation, productivity and economic growth," Collar said. "It's the most transformational technology of our time, and yet this transformational technology is not available to everyone. There are 2 billion people in the world who are connected, and over the next 10 years, a further 3 billion will connect for the first time."
Wyler, who attended the launch with his family, said O3b's advantage lies in its architecture. O3b's satellites will fly in an unique medium-altitude orbit well below geostationary communications satellites 22,300 miles above Earth.
"You can reach everybody from space, but all the satellites at the time were geostationary, 36,000 kilometers [22,300 miles] in the sky, which meant your Internet traffic had to go all the way up in the sky, causing about a half-second to a second of delay."
Other fleets of communications satellites in lower-altitude orbits, such as the craft owned by Iridium and Globalstar, are designed to serve mobile communications and telephony markets, not broadband Internet.
The problem of latency - the time it takes for messages to be sent and received - is solved by building the O3b satellite fleet closer to Earth than geostationary altitudes.
"Unless the [satellites] are closer, you're not going to have a good conversation," Wyler said, adding O3b promises a latency of 123 milliseconds.
O3b and SES, its prime shareholder, have secured rights to deploy up to 120 satellites in medium Earth orbit. If demand for O3b is sufficient, the company could order more satellites beyond the 12 craft already on contract.
"I can see a time in the future where O3b will become the largest satellite company in the world," said John Dick, O3b's chairman.
Copyright 2013 SpaceflightNow.com, all rights reserved.
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!
Stephen Clark is the Editor of Spaceflight Now, a web-based publication dedicated to covering rocket launches, human spaceflight and exploration. He joined the Spaceflight Now team in 2009 and previously wrote as a senior reporter with the Daily Texan. You can follow Stephen's latest project at SpaceflightNow.com and on Twitter.