Powerful NASA comsat launched into space

An Atlas 5 rocket carrying a secret military satellite blasted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Wednesday, the second of four missions planned this year by the National Reconnaissance Office. United Launch Alliance webcast

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket rumbled to life and blasted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Wednesday evening, lighting up the night sky as it boosted a powerful new NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellite toward orbit.

Valued between $350 mission and $400 million -- not counting the rocket -- the Boeing-built TDRS-K satellite is the first of three new models joining NASA's globe-spanning fleet of high-speed relay stations used by the International Space Station, science satellites and deep space probes.

The 192-foot-tall Atlas 5 rocket's RD-180 first stage engine ignited with a rush of fiery exhaust at 8:48 p.m. EST, quickly throttling up to full power of more than 860,000 pounds of thrust.

Putting on a dramatic evening show for area residents and tourists, the workhorse rocket majestically climbed away from launch complex 41 atop a torrent of brilliant flame and smoothly accelerated as it consumed its first stage liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants.

After arcing away to the east over the Atlantic Ocean, the Russian-designed RD-180 shut down about four minutes after liftoff. Seconds later, the spent first stage fell away and the Centaur second stage's hydrogen-fueled Pratt & Whitney RL-10A engine ignited to continue the push to orbit.

The TDRS satellite was expected to be released into a highly elliptical orbit, with a high point of more than 22,200 miles and a low point of around 2,680 miles.

It will take about 10 days to maneuver the TDRS-K satellite into a circular orbit 22,300 miles above the equator at 150 degrees west longitude. Once on station, engineers plan to spend about three months activating, checking out and calibrating the satellite's systems.

If all goes well, the satellite will be moved to 171 degrees west longitude where it will go into service. But depending on demand, mission managers say, the new satellite may be placed in orbital storage until the additional capability is needed.

Tracking and Data Relay Satellites provide tracking and telemetry for a variety of government satellites, planetary probes, launch vehicles and manned spacecraft like the International Space Station.

The latest generation features S-band antennas that can communicate with five other spacecraft simultaneously. Two 15-foot-wide steerable S-band antennas support both manned missions and science probes like the Hubble Space Telescope. High-speed Ka- and Ku-band antennas handle high-resolution video and high-volume science data.

The first TDRS satellite was launched aboard the shuttle Challenger during the sixth space shuttle mission in April 1983. A second TDRS was lost in the 1986 Challenger disaster.

Since then, NASA launched five more TDRS satellites aboard space shuttles and three more aboard Atlas rockets. TDRS-K is the 11th in the series.

This was the 35th launch of an Atlas 5 rocket, the 30th from Cape Canaveral and the eighth use of the rocket by NASA.

  • William Harwood

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.

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