Delta 4 boosts military comsat into space

Editor's note...
  • Posted at 08:00 PM EST, 01/19/12: Delta 4 boosts military comsat into space
  • Updated at 08:20 PM EST, 01/19/12: Satellite released into preliminary orbit
CBS News

A $464 million Air Force communications satellite that will be stationed over the Indian Ocean and used in part to relay commands to unmanned drones was boosted into orbit Thursday evening by a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket.

Equipped with four solid-fuel strap-on boosters for additional liftoff thrust, the 217-foot-tall Delta 4's hydrogen fueled RS-68 first-stage engine roared to life at 7:38 p.m. EST (GMT-5), lighting up a cloudless night sky as the rocket climbed away from launch complex 37B at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket carrying the WGS 4 military communications satellite blasts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (Credit:)
The 6.5-ton Wideband Global SATCOM 4 satellite -- WGS-4 -- was released into an elliptical orbit 40 minutes after launch. On-board thrusters will be used to roughly circularize the orbit by early February. Another 40 days of maneuvers, using xenon-ion thrusters, will be needed to finish maneuvering the satellite into its final orbit 22,300 miles above the equator.

After a month of tests and checkout, the Boeing-built satellite will be moved to its operational position above the Indian Ocean and turned over to the Air Force, which plans to use the spacecraft to relay communications to and from the Middle East and Southeast Asia for U.S. Central Command and U.S. Pacific Command.

WGS-4 is the fourth satellite in the series and the first of three enhanced "block 2" relay stations with higher bandwidth for improved communications with unmanned aerial vehicles - UAVs -- that carry cameras, sophisticated sensors and weapons systems and are operated by remotely by pilots via high-speed computer and video links.

WGS-4, which provides X-band and Ka-band voice and data links, can provide three times the bandwidth for UAV operations compared to earlier satellites.

"The UAVs and moving large amounts of data around is a major requirement that drove us to do the upgrade, which is giving us the significantly more bandwidth and capacity," said Dave Madden, director of the Military Satellite Communications Systems Directorate at the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center.

Mark Spiwak, WGS program director with Boeing, said the increased bandwidth will allow operators to "lock onto one or several Global Hawks, multiple Reapers and Predators, and the more bandwidth allows the operators to pump more data through. You've got that wider pipe on two uplink and two downlink channels."

"That's kind of the main change (for upgraded block 2 satellites)," he told Spaceflight Now. "It still has all of the X-band flexibility, Ka-band flexibility that the first three have, but this has these extra, larger pipes that you can really pump a lot of data through."