The European Space Agency set a notable record on May 27th, when one of their Ariane 5 rockets put a 8.3 ton payload, containing two satellites, into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). This is one of the more difficult orbits to achieve, because it is 36,000 kilometers out, and exact positioning is required in order to get the satellite to the proper position. GTO birds are usually communications satellite, with each one having 18 to 24 transponders. Each transponder is capable of relaying data at speeds of from 45 to 90 Megabits per second. There are about 250 GTO based communications satellites out there. While most communications traffic these days goes by much cheaper fiber optic cables, the satellites are in demand for mobile communications. This is especially true as portable satellite dishes become smaller and cheaper. Military use of satellite communications got its first big workout during the 2003 Iraq invasion, where American troops used, on average 3,200 Megabits of bandwidth. That tied up a lot of transponders, which rent for about $2 million a month each.
Ariane 5 took ten years and $8 billion to develop. The theoretical maximum GTO payload is ten tons, and up to three large satellites can be put into orbit, and many more smaller ones. Right now, communications satellites are the big money makers. The first successful launch of an Ariane 5 was in 1998, after two failed launches. Each Ariane 5 launch costs about $150 million.