Ariane rocket launches African, N.American satellites

KOUROU, French Guiana (Reuters) - An Ariane-5 rocket blasted off from French Guiana on Friday putting into orbit telecommunications satellites for Africa and North America, space officials said.

An Ariane-5 rocket blasts off from French Guiana, December 21, 2007. REUTERS/J.R. Dagois/ESA/ARIANESPACE/Handout

The rocket was launched from Europe’s space base in Kourou, on the northeast coast of South America, at 6:41 p.m. (4:41 p.m. EDT).

Originally scheduled for launch on Thursday, the mission was delayed for 24 hours on account of a technical problem.

Twenty-seven minutes after lift-off the rocket placed into a preliminary orbit RASCOM-QAF1, a telecoms satellite designed to provide service across Africa.

RASCOM, a 3.2 tonne (7,000 lb) satellite for the Regional African Satellite Communication Organization (RASCOM), is slated to serve the rural African market overlooked by major commercial operators.

“(RASCOM-QAF1) will contribute to bridging the digital divide within Africa and between Africa and the rest of the world,” Faraj Elamari, RASCOM chief executive said after the launch.

“This will result in savings of several hundreds of million of dollars now paid annually to operators outside of Africa,” he added.

RASCOM was built by the Franco-Italian consortium Thales Alenia Space in a turnkey contract.

Six minutes later, the Ariane-5 rocket released Horizons-2, a 2.3 tonne (5,000 lb) satellite designed to service the United States, southern Canada and parts of the Caribbean.

It was built in Virginia by Orbital Sciences Corp..

Horizons is a joint venture between Washington-based telecoms operator Intelsat -- the first commercial satellite operator which launched Early Bird in 1965 -- and Japan’s JSAT.

It was run as a semi-governmental agency until being taken private in August 2004 by Apax Partners in a $3.1 billion deal.

Private equity firms in particular are drawn to the satellite sector because of their steady cash flows, which allow them to take on large amounts of debt to finance transactions.

Ariane rockets are launched by the Paris-based Arianespace rocket launch company which is 28 percent-owned by European aerospace giant EADS.

Friday’s launch used one of the two Ariane-5 Generic rockets remaining in Arianespace’s inventory.

Additional reporting by Alexander Miles; editing by Sami Aboudi