Image: Europe's Spaceport Ariane 5 ECA being launched into the sky
S. Martin / ESA CNES / EPA
Europe's Ariane 5 rocket rises from its launch pad in French Guiana on Wednesday, carrying the TerreStar telecommunications satellite into space.
By
updated 7/1/2009 8:58:33 PM ET 2009-07-02T00:58:33

The world's largest commercial satellite was launched into space Wednesday, with a mission to provide phone service to cellular "dead zones" in North America.

The satellite, owned by TerreStar Corp. of Reston, Va., blasted off from Kourou in the South American territory of French Guiana atop an Ariane 5 rocket shortly before 2 p.m. ET, carried through pink clouds.

Half an hour later, French satellite launcher Arianespace announced that the TerreStar-1 had separated successfully from the rocket, on its way to an orbit 22,000 miles (35,200 kilometers) above the Earth.

There, the satellite is designed to unfurl an umbrella-like antenna of gold mesh 60 feet (18 meters) across, so it can pick up and relay signals from phones that are not much larger than regular cell phones.

TerreStar has shown prototypes of the phones, which are similar to BlackBerrys. Like BlackBerrys, the phones would have access to data and e-mail. The phones aren't on sale yet. TerreStar plans to have the system running before the end of the year.

To connect to the satellite, the handsets will need a clear view of the southern sky, just like a satellite dish. When that's not available, the sets will be able to connect to regular ground-based cellular networks. TerreStar has a roaming agreement with AT&T Inc.

The TerreStar 1 satellite, built by Loral Space & Communications Ltd., was originally scheduled to launch in 2007, but was delayed several times because of manufacturing problems.

The satellite is due be followed next year by two similar, even larger ones from a competitor, SkyTerra Communications Inc.

TerreStar and SkyTerra are hoping to avoid the fate that met two pioneers in satellite telephony. Iridium and Globalstar filed for bankruptcy at the beginning of the decade, wiping out billions in investor capital after launching extensive satellite systems. They are still in operation, providing last-resort communications for the military, forest wardens and others who can afford to buy dedicated, bulky satellite handsets for $1,000 and up.

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