Baku reaches for the stars as Azerbaijan launches first satellite, Radio Free Europe

Azerbaijan’s first telecommunications satellite has been launched into orbit.The Caspian Sea country’s Communications and Information Technologies Ministry told the Interfax news agency that the launch was without incident.

The “Azerspace-1/Africasat-1a” blasted off aboard anAriane 5 rocket from the Guiana Space Center near Kourou in French Guiana.

“The launch of Azerbaijan’s first telecommunications satellite marks an important milestone in the successful partnership with U.S. industry and the government of Azerbaijan,” Azerbaijani Ambassador to the United States Elin Suleymanov told reporters on February 7, the day before the historic mission.

At an estimated cost of $120 million, the spacecraft was designed, built, and tested by the Orbital Sciences Corporation, a Virginia-based technology company specializing in satellite and space-launch systems.

“Azerspace-1/Africasat-1a” reportedly carries a payload of 36 transponders that will provide telecommunications services to Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and North Africa.

Its systems are designed to support digital broadcasting, Internet access, data transmission, and governmental communications.

Now that the satellite has been launched it will undergo in-orbit testing before being put into operation on an orbital path leased from Malaysia’s Measat Satellite Systems.

It is expected to have a service life of 15 years.

Azerbaijan’s move into the satellite communications sector is being seen by many as an effort to diversify its hydrocarbon-based economy.

In 2009, a national agency was set up with the approval of President Ilham Aliyev to help develop the country’s space industry.

Nonetheless, some experts have expressed doubt that Baku will have the technological wherewithal to compete in the global satellite market with major players such as the United States, Russia, and China.

Although some Azerbaijani sites were used for the Soviet space program, these facilities are now out of date.

Consequently, special centers have been built in Baku and the Naxcivan exclave to provide ground-control systems for Azerbaijani spacecraft.

Baku plans to launch a second satellite in 2016.

— RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service and the Central Newsroom