Tim Furniss/LONDON

Russia's Proton K booster returned to operational service on 6 April, launching seven Motorola Iridium worldwide hand-held telephone mobile communications satellites into low Earth orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Proton launch follows flights by a Chinese Long March 2C/SD on 26 March, carrying two Iridium satellites, and the five-satellite launch of a Boeing Delta 2 on 30 March, bringing to 14 the number of satellites launched in 13 days.

The launch was the last of three by the Proton carrying 21 satellites, under a $174 million contract with Motorola in a deal separate from the US/Russian ILS International Launch Services umbrella.

ILS markets the Proton and the US Atlas fleet for launches primarily of geostationary-orbiting communications satellites.

The last Proton launch on 25 December, 1997, failed when the ILS-operated booster did not place the Asiasat 3 communications satellite into the correct orbit. The April 6 success will boost confidence for further communications satellite launches planned for this year.

Sixty-five Iridiums have been launched, two of which are not functioning. Motorola is to declare the system operational on 23 September, when there are 66 prime satellites and up to six back-up spacecraft in low Earth orbit.

The next launches of a Delta II with five craft and a Long March 2C/SD with two, will be completed by May, bringing the total of operational satellites to 70.

Source: Flight International