* Last spacecraft launched 10 years ago
* Seven of 10 in network currently operational
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Jan 30 An unmanned Atlas 5
rocket blasted off on Wednesday to put the first of a new
generation of NASA communications satellites into orbit, where
it will support the International Space Station, the Hubble
Space Telescope and other spacecraft.
The 191-foot (58-metre) rocket lifted off at 8:48 p.m.
(0148 GMT Thursday), the first of 13 planned launches in 2013
from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station just south of NASA's
Kennedy Space Center.
Once in position 22,300 miles (35,900 km) above the planet,
the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, known as TDRS and built
by Boeing Co, will join a seven-member network that
tracks rocket launches and relays communications to and from the
space station, the Hubble observatory and other spacecraft
Two other TDRS spacecraft were decommissioned in 2009 and
2011 respectively and shifted into higher "graveyard" orbits. A
third satellite was lost in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger
NASA used its space shuttle fleet for launching the
satellites until 1995, then switched in 2000 to unmanned Atlas
rockets, manufactured by United Space Alliance, a partnership of
Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
With six operational satellites and a seventh spare, NASA
can track and communicate with spacecraft in lower orbits, such
as the space station, which flies about 250 miles (400 km) above
Before 1983 when the first TDRS was launched, NASA relied on
ground-based communications, occasionally supplemented
with airplanes and ships, which was expensive to maintain and
provided only a fraction of the coverage of an orbiting network.
Three second-generation TDRS spacecraft were launched from
2000 to 2002. Wednesday's launch was the first of three planned
third-generation satellites needed to replace aging members of
"It's been a long time since we launched the last one,"
NASA's TDRS project manager, Jeffrey Gramling, told reporters at
a news conference before the launch.
Most of the spacecraft are well beyond their 10-year design
life, he added.
Initially developed to support the space shuttle and space
station programs, the TDRS network now serves a variety of NASA
spacecraft and commercial users such as Space Exploration
Technologies and foreign space agencies flying cargo ships to
and from the station, a $100 billion research laboratory staffed
by rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts.
The new spacecraft, which cost between $350 million and $400
million, will take about 10 days to reach its intended orbit. It
will then go through a three-month checkout before it is put
into service, Gramling said.
The 12th and 13th TDRS satellites are targeted for launch in
2014 and December 2015.