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Last Updated: Sunday, 12 March 2006, 00:47 GMT
Fourth flight for biggest Ariane
Ariane 5-ECA launches from Kourou
The launch had been postponed three times
Europe's most powerful rocket - the Ariane 5-ECA - has launched two satellites from French Guiana.

It lifted off from Kourou spaceport at 1932 local time (2232 GMT), carrying satellites for the Spanish defence ministry and a French telecoms company.

The launch marked the Ariane 5's first flight this year and only the fourth for the 780-tonne heavy-lift version.

The ECA has the power to push 10,000kg of payload towards geostationary orbit, 36,000km above the Earth.

The mission had originally been scheduled for 21 February but was put off three times because of technical problems with ground support equipment, the payload and the upper stage of the launcher.

Saturday's attempt, however, proceeded without a hitch.

The first satellite released, 27 minutes into the flight, was the 3.7-tonne Spainsat, the first Spanish satellite dedicated to secure government communications.

It shared a ride with the 4.1-tonne Hot Bird 7A, the 21st satellite launched for the Paris-based telecoms operator Eutelsat Communications.

Eutelsat Communications said Hot Bird 7A would transmit more than 850 television channels and 550 radio stations to 110 million homes in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East for the next 15 years.

Flight history

Saturday's launch was the 170th of an Ariane rocket since the start of the French-led programme in 1979.

The generic Ariane 5 launcher went into full commercial service in 1999, and was followed a few years later by the beefed-up heavy-payload version.

The first Ariane 5-ECA had to be destroyed on its maiden flight in 2002 but flew successfully twice in 2005.

What satellites are for, where they go, and how they are launched

It has two solid boosters to lift it off the ground, a cryogenic main stage to do most of the work of getting into orbit, and an upper stage to place the satellites in the target orbit, or geostationary transfer orbit.

From this altitude, the spacecraft use their own onboard propulsion systems to move into final parking positions high above the planet.

To get the extra performance, the ECA's solid boosters carry more propellant and the main Vulcain cryogenic engine has been modified to improve its combustion of liquid oxygen and hydrogen.

The main difference compared with the generic vehicle, however, is the introduction of a new upper stage based on tried and tested technologies used on the much older, but now retired, Ariane 4 launcher.

The Ariane rocket (BBC)

See the Ariane 5-ECA take off from Kourou spaceport

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