The launch of a UK-made satellite in the South American jungle could be key to unlocking internet access in Scotland's blackspots

IN a lush, tropical jungle, beneath a vast, cloudless blue sky, the calls of exotic birds compete with the blaring sound from four television screens. The bar is doing a roaring trade in bottles of water and tubs of ice-cream.

In sandals and shorts, sunglasses pushed up on heads, the assembled group crackles with anticipation. It could be a beach bar, the punters waiting to catch the latest Premiership game on satellite TV. But it's not.

… Dix, neuf, huit. The crowd, a hotchpotch of British MPs and investors, engineers from France, experts and enthusiasts from all over the world, is hushed, expectant, nervous. In the glaring heat, five kilometres away, across a swathe of thick vegetation teeming with life, home to jaguars, monkeys and myriad birds with beautiful feathers and haunting calls, sits Ariane 5, a creamy white space rocket the height of a 20-storey building. Rolled into place from a nearby hanger where the launch team has run through the final procedures, it's taken hours to move the rocket into position. Now it sits, placidly waiting, ready to carry a precious and historic cargo into the earth's orbit.

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… Trois, deux, un. It's time. The first sign is a belch of white smoke that escapes from the rocket base, bubbling up over the green jungle canopy. As the rocket begins its silent, graceful ascent, the smoke grows thicker, brilliant white against the blue sky and the afterburn glows orange, so bright it hurts your eyes. Then comes the noise. It takes 12 seconds for the sound to reach the viewing platform where the crowd stands, hushed, in awe of the spectacle, but when it does it's loud enough to be felt as well as heard. There's no roar, no squeal, it's a rhythmic rumble, like a persistent thunder clap growing louder as the rocket rises into the atmosphere. It's beautiful, unexpectedly elegant and a little frightening in its sheer power.

To get to the Toucan viewing platform you have to pass through three checkpoints manned by soldiers of the French Foreign Legion, dressed in camouflage and toting weapons. Identity badges and access passes are checked time and again. This is Europe's space port, the 700-hectare Arianespace Centre Spatial Guiana (CSG) in Kourou, French Guiana, a colony in South America sandwiched between Suriname and Brazil, probably best known as one of France's most infamous penal colonies (the prison from where Henri 'Papillon' Charrire escaped, at least once on some sacks stuffed with coconut shells).

The space centre is in fact a series of enormous, windowless hangars spread across a huge expanse of jungle. The combination of communication masts and concrete launch pads, burly security in camouflage shorts manning checkpoints, set against a backdrop of palm trees and perfect blue skies more than hints at James Bond. But far from the cutting edge, futuristic design and architecture favoured by Hollywood, CSG has a slightly worn out, shabby feel. The buildings are sun-bleached, the decor of mission control, the nerve centre of the operation, looks like the set of a 1980s space movie. The administration buildings look like dowdy council offices.

On a launch day security is stepped up. Schools are closed and locals from the nearby islands, Les les du Salut, are moved temporarily from their homes in case of falling debris. Somehow the wildlife of the jungle seems to understand it has to keep its distance.

The launch of Ariane 5 has a special significance for the UK and Scotland. The rocket's cargo, a satellite called Hylas-1, was built in Britain, is owned by a British company and will have a direct impact for people who want high-speed broadband at home. Costing 120 million, money that's come mainly from the owner, communication company Avanti, but which includes cash from the UK government in the form of some 40m delivered through the European Space Agency (ESA).

It's a big deal, a significant investment and a reason for the great and the good of the European space community to be flown to South America on a specially chartered flight, where champagne and caviar soothes the nerves of the money men and flatters the investors. Strapping more than 100 million to a rocket and sending it skywards has the potential to yield a significant return, but before that countdown and launch, it carries quite a risk. Once operational though, Hylas-1 will provide broadband to places in the UK and beyond which are at the moment highspeed internet blackspots, many of them in Scotland. In a year or so, it will reach areas of the Middle East and Africa.

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Just five degrees north of the equator, this jungle location is one of two ESA launch sites (the other is in Kazakhstan). It's perfect because, as well as being free from cyclone activity, its position on the earth acts like a kind of slingshot, boosting the progress of rockets into orbit. Drive around Kourou, the small town closest to the base, past the modern apartment blocks and low, painted houses with fences made of mismatched sheets of corrugated iron, and satellite dishes sit in gardens, faces upturned to the sky like oversized mechanical flowers. Since the CSG opened in 1968, there have been 185 successful launches from the site; today's is the sixth this year, with another planned for December 21.

For David Williams, chief executive of Avanti, the launch of Hylas-1 is a justifiably emotional experience. The culmination of ten years' work, raising more than 100m to build a satellite to be strapped into a huge rocket and blasted into orbit, is hardly stress-free.

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"As I watched it coming up over the horizon I got exactly the same feeling as I got when I saw my first child born," he says. "It literally took my breath away. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Amazing.

"Ten years ago Avanti was basically a stapler and laptop I borrowed from my wife and now we've got a satellite in orbit. It's bonkers."

A few minutes after lift-off, the only visible evidence of what's just happened is a trail of white smoke smudging the sky like chalk on a blackboard. The plume, stretching further than the eye can see, is all that remains of the tonnes of propellant needed to launch the rocket through the earth's atmosphere at a speed of 11km a second. The two enormous boosters provide 1,300 tonnes of thrust, the equivalent of 12 jumbo jets, blasting the rocket into space in just two minutes. The then empty boosters separate from the rocket and fall back to earth, plummeting into the ocean at speeds of up to mach 10. From there, the rocket continues on its trajectory, now just a dot on a graph on screens around mission control. It's only once the rocket is in space that it will separate, allowing the satellite to open its solar wings, some 20m across, to begin its own journey to its position in geostationary orbit. From there it will orbit earth, beaming broadcast signals around the world.

Watching the dot on the screen, people shake hands and cheer. Those who have invested not only millions of pounds, but many years of their working lives look visibly calmer.

According to James Hinds of Astrium, the project manager for Hylas-1, the fact that the satellite is British-built and UK-owned is huge. The UK is second only the US in terms of space science. It is the world leader in terms of small satellites. The industry is responsible for 26,000 jobs directly and some 80,000 in a broader sense. It has grown ten per cent each year for the last two years. Turnover has doubled in the past decade and is now estimated to be worth 7.5bn to the UK economy.

As far as monitoring the earth from space, vital for weather forecasting, pollution monitoring, disaster relief and long-term assessments of climate change, the UK is a world leader. It was a British-built satellite, operated by the Nigerian Space Agency, that beamed the first images of Hurricane Katrina, kick-starting the relief effort.

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Space may seem a million miles away, but from transport to telecommunications, TV and the internet, GPS on your mobile phone to the weather forecast you check before you go on holiday, satellites beam this information to us. There are nearly 800 orbiting the earth, but Hylas-1 will be Europe's first satellite dedicated to providing broadband internet services.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the UK has fewer broadband lines than any of the large global economies. In a league table, we come 21st out of 30 countries. At the end of 2000, fewer than one in 10,000 people in the UK had a permanent high-speed connection (DSL or cable modem) compared to nine in every 100 in South Korea. According to the government's new 'internet champion' Martha Lane Fox, more than three million people over the age of 65 go more than a week without seeing a friend, family or a neighbour, while half of all internet users say the web increases contact with friends who live further away. And yet 6.4 million people over 65 have never used the internet.

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For Labour MP Pamela Nash, Hylas-1 will have a direct impact in her Airdrie and Shotts constituency. "It is a mixture of urban and rural," she says. "There's a large area in the middle where there's no broadband coverage at all. It depends on whether people think broadband is a luxury or an essential, but as the cost has come down and use of it commercially and by government has gone up, I think it has become an essential part of people's lives.

"There is still high unemployment in my constituency. Often job-seekers from local villages will come to see me. They cannot afford dial-up internet access and they don't have access to broadband. Often they are told at the Job Centre to go and look for jobs online but if they can't afford it themselves and there is only limited access from the Job Centre, that just isn't a viable option for them."

Hylas-1 will play a real part in making this possible across Europe and, of course, in remote areas of Scotland.

A day after the launch, on one of the small islands in the archipelago off the coast where convicts once hauled rocks and were locked in tiny, dark cells where tourists now take snaps and pose, the teams responsible for the launch are nursing hangovers. Mobile phones bleep with texts giving updates from space. Hylas-1 is now being controlled from Bangalore, it's still making its may to its position in orbit, but everything is going to plan and congratulations come from relieved investors in the City whose cash floats safely in space.

In the cool bar, there's a pool table and a blackboard spelling out the catch of the day. In one corner, a TV is showing Aston Villa versus Arsenal live. A few men stand staring at the screen, cold beers clutched in hot hands.

Do they know where those images have come from? Do they have any idea what they're watching has been bounced in less than a second from a football ground in England to French Guiana via a satellite in space? Probably not.

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This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on December 5, 2010