A spacecraft designed to improve emergency response time and boost communications between Europe and Africa lifted off high atop a Russian Proton rocket on Saturday and into the predawn skies over Kazakhstan.
The ASTRA 2G spacecraft will complete a cluster of three satellites in geostationary orbit designed to assist in satellite communications and emergency response in a broad region of the earth from the United Kingdom, across Europe and over western Africa.
"The ground processing (and) lift-off have proceeded nominally," the Khrunichev Space Center announced minutes after the launch. "The
orbital unit separated nominally from the (third) stage, and continued the mission
in a standalone mode."
Based from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Luxembourg, the ASTRA trio of satellites will assist the e-health platform of SATMED in the rapid response time following a natural disaster. Astra will improve high speed Internet access and voice and data relay to areas without network coverage.
The emergency alert spacecraft ran to an emergency of its own en route to it's launch site half way between Moscow and Baikonur Cosmodrome. An aircraft carrying the Astra 2G from Moscow to the launch site avoided an inflight emergency on October 29. The Russian AN-124-100 plane's number four engine suffered a temperature spike which forced the flight to perform an emergency landing in Ulyanovsk, 800 miles southeast of Moscow. The flight was completed the following day.
The launcher and it's payload were rolled out to it's historic launch pad 39, Yuri Gagrin's launch complex, at Baikonur on Wednesday in preparation for flight. The 191-foot tall Proton rocket includes three main stages and a Breeze-M boost stage to complete its mission.
Frigid temperatures at the launch site dropped to near zero as the countdown reached zero. The International Launch Services Proton-M six RD276 engines ignited illuminating the black night with yellow and orange flames. The silver rocket's combined 1.55 million pounds of weight began to climb skyward at 4:37:49 p.m. EST (3:37 a.m. local time, Sunday), riding a 300-foot golden flame.
The Proton rocket soared higher and faster as the first stage rapidly drank it's fuel. Two minutes into the flight, the now empty first stage separated and the second stage's four engines immediately ignited steering the rocket on a easterly course.
The Breeze-M upper stage will perform five separate burns over eight hours to boost ASTRA into its transfer orbit. Astra is expected to separate from Breeze nine hours after lift-off (1:49 a.m.) 22,300 miles above the equator north of Madagascar beginning a 15-year lifespan.
This launch also marked the 401st mission of Russia's Proton rocket since the program began during the cold war days of the space race in July 1965.
This launch was delayed several weeks after launch pad testing discovered undisclosed issues between the satellite and it's upper stage. The rocket's manufacture Khrunichev State Research and Production returned Proton to it's assembly building "to eliminate the identified faults".
The Proton launch occurs following a string on Proton failures over the last few years, including on May 16 in which a failure of the third stage caused its lone satellite to be lost. This launch marked the seventh Proton launch of the year.