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NASA's Switchboard In The Sky

An Atlas 2A rocket boosted a new NASA communications satellite into orbit Friday, a "switchboard in the sky" that will serve space shuttles, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station and more than two dozen other spacecraft.

The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) - first of a new generation of advanced communication satellites - is capable of beaming down enough data each second to fill 95 computer floppy disks, about 1.1 gigabits, reports CBS News Aerospace Correspondent William Harwood.

Thirty minutes into the flight, the payload separated from the rocket and began a climbing orbit toward its final designated spot above Earth.

The launch, delayed 18 minutes by a boat that strayed into the launch danger zone off the cape, came after a one-day delay to give engineers time to analyze a rocket thruster control valve in one of the two engines powering the Atlas Centaur upper stage.

Launch delays caused by small boats operating off Cape Canaveral have been an increasing problem in recent months, prompting the Air Force, the Coast Guard and Lockheed Martin to beef up efforts to warn boaters of upcoming flights.

The new satellite - built by Hughes Space and Communications Company - is designed to provide around-the-clock communications with military, civilian and commercial satellites.

With just two such satellites, one stationed over the Atlantic Ocean just east of Brazil and another positioned over the Indian Ocean, space shuttle crews can stay in contact with mission control over 85 percent of each orbit using a single ground station in New Mexico.

Seven TDRS satellites have been launched since 1983, but several are beyond their planned orbital lifetimes and are no longer able to provide complete service. One of the original TDRS satellites was lost in the 1986 Challenger disaster.

Another satellite can no longer be relied on for space communications and is instead used to provide a radio link between scientists in Antarctica and the United States. And two other satellites are in good condition. But the average age of the satellites in orbit is more than 10 years.

As time goes on, "things wear out and it's no different with the Tracking and Data Relay satellites," said Robert Spearing, a senior manager at NASA headquarters in Washington.

"We've seen some degradation and the program is aimed at replacing or replenishing that fleet so we have continuous service from these satellites well into the second decade of this century," he said.

NASA is spending $830 million for three upgraded TDRS satellites, three Lockheed Martin Atlas 2A rockets and modifications to ground terminals to take advantage of the new systems.

The first satellite in the trio was launched Fridayat 8:56 a.m. ET from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The satellite was released into a preliminary elliptical orbit about 30 minutes after liftoff. Over the next week or so, on-board rockets wilfire to place the satellite in a circular orbit 22,300 miles above the equator.

After an extensive checkout period, it will be maneuvered to a new location where it will begin service.

The 3,918-pound satellite features two steerable 15-foot-wide antennas that can be used to receive and relay telemetry from spacecraft with small antennas as well as from rockets during launch.

"Flexibility is the hallmark of TDRS next-generation satellites, which will support 16 current users," said Randy Brinkley, a Hughes vice president.

The spacecraft has two 15-foot diameter antennas of flexible graphite mesh, folded into a taco-like shape at launch. Upon reaching orbit, stowage straps are released, letting the antennas spring into their original shape.

© 2000 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report

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