PARIS - The largest commercial satellite ever built - the massive TerreStar-1 - launched into space on Wednesday, riding a European-built rocket into orbit.
Weighing in at 15,233 pounds (6,910 kg), TerreStar-1 lifted off atop an Ariane 5 ECA rocket at 1:52 p.m. EDT (1752 GMT) from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana.
The launch was the third of seven Ariane 5 ECA launches planned for 2009 by the European launch firm Arianespace. Because of its size, TerreStar-1 was the sole payload onboard the vehicle, which is typically used to place two telecommunications satellites at a time into geostationary transfer orbit.
In addition to its mass, TerreStar-1 is distinguished by a giant, 60-foot (18-meter) wide S-band antenna that will be unfurled in the coming weeks. Once the satellite?s two solar wings are deployed, TerreStar-1 is expected to have a wingspan of about 106 feet (32.4 meters). The satellite and its S-band antenna are expected to be put through several months of ground tests before entering commercial service toward the end of the year, according to its owners, the Reston, Va.-based TerreStar Networks Inc.
TerreStar-1 was built by the California-based Space Systems/Loral. It is designed to provide mobile voice and data communications in North America to smartphone-size handsets using the 2-gigahertz, or S-band, portion of the radio spectrum. The system is designed to function with a network of ground-based signal amplifiers to permit service in areas the satellite cannot reach, such as urban canyons and areas outside the line-of-sight view of the spacecraft.
With its satellite now launched, TerreStar faces some of the same challenges that ICO Global, also of Reston, faced following the launch of its S-band mobile communications satellite in mid-2008: How to secure the remaining investment needed to deploy the network of ground repeaters, called the Ancillary Terrestrial Component, which are crucial to making the service work. It is an investment likely to total at least several hundred million dollars. ICO has since filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as it seeks to reorganize its debt.
?Today?s launch is just the beginning of the TerreStar story,? said TerreStar President, Jeff Epstein, in a statement. ?We believe there are tremendous opportunities ahead - in both the commercial and government sectors - and we remain focused on our promise to help solve the critical communications and business continuity challenges faced by government, emergency responders, enterprises and rural communities.?
SPACE.com staff contributed to this report.
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Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Space.com and Live Science. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica. Visit him at http://www.sciwriter.us