A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launch is seen from Port Canaveral on Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. / Malcolm Denemark, FLORIDA TODAY
MELBOURNE, Fla. - After a late night blastoff from Cape Canaveral, a Atlas V rocket successfully delivered a Global Positioning System satellite to orbit early Saturday morning.
The GPS IIF-7 spacecraft separated from the United Launch Alliance rocket nearly 3 1/2 hours into the flight and sent signals to the ground confirming it was operating properly in an orbit about 11,000 miles up.
"Congratulations to the U.S. Air Force and all of our mission partners on the successful launch of the Atlas V carrying the GPS IIF-7 satellite," said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president of Atlas and Delta Programs, in a statement.
ULA's next launch is the WorldView-3 mission for DigitalGlobe on an Atlas V scheduled to launch Aug. 13 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
The $245 million GPS IIF-7 satellite will undergo weeks of tests and is expected to join the active GPS constellation of 31 spacecraft by mid-September.
In October the Air Force plans to launch its fourth GPS satellite this year.
"This is the most aggressive launch campaign schedule since we initially populated the GPS constellation in 1993," said Col. Bill Cooley, director of the Global Positioning Systems Directorate at the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.
Rumbling from Launch Complex 41 on its first attempt Friday, the 19-story rocket streaked northeast over the Atlantic Ocean, visible until its Russian-built RD-180 main engine burned out more than four minutes into flight.
The new series of GPS spacecraft are designed to last at least 12 years. The constellation flies in six different orbital planes about 11,000 miles up.
The GPS system provides highly accurate position, navigation and timing information that guides troops and weapons around the globe.
Millions of civilians also use the signals for such everyday purposes as getting driving directions on a smart phone or processing financial transactions.
The new-generation spacecraft provide greater navigational accuracy, a stronger anti-jamming signal and a new commercial aviation search and rescue signal.
The Atlas V's on-time launch came just four full days after ULA's Monday evening launch of a Delta IV rocket carrying three Air Force satellites.
That's ULA's best turnaround time yet between launches, after twice launching pairs within six days of each other.
Because the rockets share some common systems, including the upper stage engine, a careful review follows any launch before the next one is cleared to proceed.
"We want to make sure that anything we might observe on one particular mission doesn't raise a concern for the mission that follows," said Walter Lauderdale, Air Force mission director for Friday night's launch.
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