BOOSTER BOOM Each rocket can use extra boosters. From left, naked Atlas 5, with solid rocket boosters, and the heavy-lift configuration.

As satellites grow bigger and more powerful, so must the rockets that carry them into orbit. A new generation is emerging-not only are they more muscular, but they’re also efficient and environmentally friendly. In the battle for the world’s launchpads, here’s how the contenders stack up.

Vehicle: Ariane 5
Maker: Arianespace (France)
First launch: June 1996
First payload: Cluster scientific satellites (destroyed)
Capacity (in Chevy Suburbans): 3.8
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Vehicle: Delta 4
Maker: Boeing (U.S.)
First launch: July 2002
First payload: Eutelsat telecommunications satellite
Capacity (in Chevy Suburbans): 5.0
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Vehicle: Atlas 5
Maker: Lockheed Martin (U.S.)
First launch: May 2002
First payload: Hot Bird 6 TV broadcasting satellite
Capacity (in Chevy Suburbans): 3.1
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Vehicle: Proton M
Maker: Khrunichev (Russia)
First launch: April 2001
First payload: Ekran M communications satellite
Capacity (in Chevy Suburbans): 2.1
More info: