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Ariane 5 launches; doesn't explode

Enormous rocket fires up Hot Bird

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The European Space Agency's (ESA) Ariane 5 rocket, the Shire horse of space freight, has blasted off from French Guiana carrying two communications satellites.

Originally pencilled in for 21 February, technical problems with ground support equipment, the payload, and the upper stage of the launcher forestalled the beast's fourth launch three times.

Lift-off finally occured at 22:32GMT on Saturday. The payload comprised a 3.7 tonne secure Spanish defence satellite, and Hot Bird; a promising-sounding, but actually stroke-inducingly mundane 4.1 tonne high-definition broadcast satellite.

Ariane 5 can shift payloads of up to 9.6 tonnes. It released SPAINSAT and Hot Bird into geostationary orbit over Europe five minutes apart.

The beefy rocket is the cornerstone of the European space programme, and a money-maker for the ESA. With Boeing's goliath 14 tonne-capable Delta 4-Heavy earmarked for defence ops, Ariane has the commercial heavy-lifting market to itself.

The unmanned Ariane 5 launches have always made for noteworthy events thanks to the double-header of the gut-wrenching power of the rocket and the extra spice added by the ever-present threat of it exploding at any second. ®

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