updated 12/8/2006 9:58:18 PM ET 2006-12-09T02:58:18

A heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket blasted off from French Guiana late Friday, putting two American telecommunications satellites into orbit, space officials said.

The rocket launched on schedule from Europe’s space base in Kourou, on the northeast coast of South America at 7:08 p.m. local time.

Billed by the Arianespace rocket launch company as a cost-effective launcher for large satellites, the heavy-lift rocket is capable of launching payloads of up to 10 metric tons.

This adds more than 3 tons of launch capacity to the current “Generic” Ariane-5 in service since the mid-1990s.

Arianespace is 28 percent owned by European aerospace giant EADS.

Twenty-seven minutes after the launch, the rocket released into a preliminary orbit the WildBlue 1 communications satellite for U.S. operator Wildblue Communications.

Built in the United States by Space Systems/Loral, a division of Loral Space & Communications, WildBlue weighed 10,400 pounds (4.7 metric tons) at launch and is designed to provide high-speed Internet services to rural areas of the United States and Canada.

“What we’ve done tonight will help us satisfy the tremendous demand we are having for our service,” WildBlue Vice President Jim Elliot said after the launch.

WildBlue said it is adding nearly 15,000 customers a month and expects to have 120,000 subscribers by the end of this year.

Five minutes later, the rocket released AMC-18, a 4,600-pound (2.1-metric-ton) satellite for SES Americom that will be used for high-definition television and telecommunications services throughout the United States.

SES Americom is a subsidiary of Luxembourg-based SES Global, the world’s largest satellite operator.

AMC-18 was built by Lockheed Martin and is designed to operate in space for 15 years.

Jean-Yves Legall, Arianespace’s chief executive officer, said Friday’s launch was the seventh consecutive successful launch for the heavy-lift Ariane 5 since it was put into commercial service, and the fifth this year.

Legall said six Ariane 5 launches were planned for 2007.

The first launch of the Ariane 5 heavy-lift in December 2002 ended in failure after the rocket exploded in flight due to an anomaly in its main engine.

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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