Atlas 5 rocket boosts military comsat into orbit

CBS News

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket boosted a $900 million military communications satellite into space early Wednesday, the third in a series of high-speed, state-of-the-art relay stations shared by the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Running more than an hour late because of clouds and high upper level winds, the Atlas 5's Russian-designed RD-180 first stage engine ignited with a torrent of fiery exhaust at 4:10 a.m. EDT (GMT-4) and the 197-foot-tall rocket vaulted away from pad pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket roars to life and climbs away from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a mission to deliver a new military communications satellite to orbit. (Credit: United Space Alliance)
Tucked inside a protective nose cone was the third Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite that will join two other AEHF relay stations and work with older MILSTAR satellites, providing jam-resistant, encrypted communications for military units around the world.

A fourth AEHF satellite is scheduled for launch in the 2016-2017 timeframe.

The new Lockheed Martin satellites are "connecting more users and more countries than ever before, our on-orbit operations are providing superior voice and data to terminals at sea, in the air and on the ground and for the first time this year, we're connecting our allies across multiple platforms," said Mark Calassa, Lockheed Martin vice president for Protected Communication Systems.

"Our system is proving to be a national asset for the U.S. and our partners," he said.

The Atlas 5 put on a spectacular pre-dawn show as it climbed away to the East through a star-sprinkled sky, generating nearly 2 million pounds of thrust and trailing a brilliant jet of fiery exhaust visible for dozens of miles around.

The strap-on boosters burned out and fell away about one minute and 50 seconds into flight, followed by the first stage itself two-and-a-half minutes later. The Centaur second stage, powered by a single hydrogen-fueled RL10A engine, then ignited and fired for nine-and-a-half minutes to boost the vehicle into an initial preliminary orbit.

The second stage engine re-ignited eight minutes later, firing for another five minutes and 40 seconds to complete the launch phase of the mission. The AEHF-3 satellite was released into a highly elliptical orbit with a high point of around 31,000 miles and a low point of 140 miles.

Over the next three months, the 13,600-pound satellite's on-board thrusters will repeatedly fire to circularize the orbit at 22,300 miles above the equator where spacecraft take 24 hours to complete one orbit and thus appear to hang stationary in the sky.

AEHF satellites are five times faster than older MILSTAR relay stations they are replacing and can handle 10 times more data. They are designed to provide secure, jam-proof communications even in a post-nuclear environment.

AEHF-3 will "continue to build on our long-term cooperative efforts with Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom," said Col. Rod Miller, AEHF program manager at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. "This important cooperation enables coalition operations with our key allies, extends interoperability and provides our international partners with an important national capability."

The first two satellites in the constellation cost about $5.8 billion, including ground systems and terminals.

An Air Force spokeswoman said AEHF-3 cost around $900 million and AEHF-4 will run about $1.8 billion by the time it's launched in three or four years. The Air Force is expected to eventually buy two more satellites.

"The AEHF system will be the backbone for protected and reliable secure communications well into the next decade," Miller said. "Getting (AEHF-3) to geosynchronous orbit and operational will be a major program milestone enabling the DOD's transition from the MILSTAR system."