CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida An Atlas 5 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Friday carrying a sophisticated communications satellite designed to provide voice and data services for U.S. military forces around the world.
The 206-foot (63-meter) tall rocket, built and operated by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, lifted off at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) from a seaside launch pad just south of the Kennedy Space Center.
Perched on top of the booster was the second satellite in the U.S. Navy's Mobile User Objective System, or MUOS, network. The satellites, built by Lockheed Martin, are intended to augment and eventually replace the Navy's existing Ultra High Frequency satellites.
Those UHF spacecraft provide 2.4 kilobytes per second of digital voice only. MUOS spacecraft provide 348 kilobytes per second and adds data transmission capability.
The network, which will include four operational spacecraft and one on-orbit spare, is intended to bring 3G-cellular technology to ships at sea, submarines, aircraft, land vehicles and troops in the field.
"You can think of the satellites as the cell towers in the sky," Lockheed Martin vice president Iris Bombelyn told reporters during a prelaunch conference call. "That's a really good way to think of how the system works."
Weighing in at nearly 15,000 pounds (6,804 kg), MUOS satellites are the heaviest payloads to have flown on Atlas 5 rockets, which are outfitted with five strap-on solid fuel boosters to accommodate the load.
The first MUOS satellite was launched in 2012. MUOS 3 is targeted to launch in 2014, followed by MUOS 4 in 2015 and MUOS 5 after that.
The new satellite will spend about eight days adjusting its orbit so that it circles about 22,300 miles above Earth. It will then unfurl its solar panel wings and deploy two antennas to begin on-orbit checkouts prior to being put into service sometime next year.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Jackie Frank)