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SkyNet 5 blasts into space

Military communications via PFI

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British military intelligence satellite SkyNet5 blasted off into space this weekend from Kourou in French Guiana. The launch was originally scheduled for Saturday, but a small glitch in ground equipment prompted a 24 hour delay.

Once established in orbit, the satellite will form part of a three-part constellation passing data between miltary command centres. It is the first of the three satellites to be launched: its companions are scheduled to join it in 2008.

Patrick Wood, head of Skynet spacecraft development at EADS Astrium, told the BBC: "We've already received telemetry from it. In fact, we had a ground station see it just 10 minutes after separation. We've even sent commands to SkyNet. It's behaving itself perfectly."

The satellite took to the skies atop an Ariane 5 rocket. Wood said the launch itself was "incredibly nerve-wracking", but an amazing experience.

The new constellation will provide five times as much bandwidth for the military as the current SkyNet 4 system. Its capacity can be deployed where needed, thanks to four steerable antennae. It has an advanced receive antenna designed to filter out signals sent to jam it, and has been designed to defend against attempts to disable it, or eavesdrop on its signals.

The satellites have been provided as part of a £3.6bn private finance initiative deal, signed in October 2003.

They are owned and operated, not by the military, but by a company called Paridigm Secure Communications, a subsidiary of EADS Astrium, which leases them to the military.

As well as its regular fee for access to and service of the satellites, Paridigm will be able to sell excess bandwidth to friendly powers. ®

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