The 19-story tall Atlas 5 rocket, built and launched by United
Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing
Co, lifted off at 9:33 p.m. EST (0233 GMT Friday).
With the 3.8-ton (3,447-kg) Boeing-built Tracking and Data Relay
Satellite perched on its nose, the rocket blazed through clear,
star-filled skies as it headed southeast over the Atlantic Ocean
The satellite, called TDRS, is the 12th built for a NASA
constellation that circles more than 22,300 miles above Earth. The
satellites are strategically positioned over the Atlantic, Pacific
and Indian oceans where they can continuously track and communicate
with the space station and dozens of other fast-moving spacecraft
some 22,000 miles below.
"This capability is analogous to standing at the top of the Empire
State Building and tracking an ant as it marches its way down the
sidewalk in front of the building," Boeing program director Andy
Kopito told reporters during a prelaunch press conference at the
Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday.
Eight members of the network currently remain in orbit. Two have
been decommissioned and were incinerated as they fell back into
Earth's atmosphere. A third satellite was destroyed in the 1986
space shuttle Challenger accident.
NASA ordered a 13th and final TDRS satellite to ensure the network
can operate through 2030. By then, NASA expects to transition to
laser communications and other upgrades that will significantly
boost capability and cut costs, said NASA deputy associate
administrator Badri Younes.
NASA paid a combined $715 million for the TDRS satellite launched on
Thursday and its predecessor, launched in January 2013, Younes said.
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That amount also covered ongoing upgrades to its prime ground
communications station in White Sands, New Mexico. The next
satellite, which should be ready for launch in 2016, will cost about
$290 million. TDRS network operation and maintenance add another $70
million to $80 million a year, Younes said.
Besides supporting the space station, a $100 billion project of 15
nations, the TDRS satellites are used by NASA's fleet of
Earth-observing satellites and telescopes, such as the Hubble
Other agencies, including the U.S. military and non-U.S. space
agencies, use the TDRS network on a part-time and as-needed basis.
The tracking and communications services also are available to
commercial companies — including United Launch Alliance, which uses
TDRS to track its rockets during liftoff.
One minute on TDRS' highest bandwidth, which is 300 megabits per
second, costs $139, Younes said, although many non-NASA users barter
for time on the network. NASA also is shifting from per-minute fees
to charging based on percentage of use, he added.
(Editing by Eric Walsh and Lisa
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