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Atlas 5 Rocket Launches Six Military Research Satellites into Orbit

Atlas 5 Rocket Launches Six Military Research Satellites into Orbit
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket launches spaceward from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to begin the Space Test Program-1 (STP-1) mission for the U.S. Air Force on March 8, 2007. (Image credit: United Launch Alliance.)

An Atlas 5 rocketlaunched spaceward late Thursday, hauling a clutch of six military research satellites into orbit for the U.S.Air Force.

The United LaunchAlliance (ULA) booster shot into the night sky above Florida's CapeCanaveral Air Force Station at 10:10 p.m. EST (0310 March 9 GMT) carrying two OrbitalExpress spacecraft refueling demonstrators and four experimental microsatellitesunder the Air Force's Space Test Program-1 (STP-1) mission [image].

  • VIDEO: Riding Along with Orbital Express

"Thisis a proud moment in our company's history and a significant step forward inproviding our nation assured access to space using the most cost-effectivemeans possible," Michael Gass, ULA president and CEO, said in a post-launchstatement, adding that the space shot marked the first launch of an expendableAtlas booster for the U.S. Air Force.

Thursday's spaceshot occurred about a half hour later than planned due to launch range radiointerference and booster vent valve issues, though both proved only short delays.

OrbitalExpress, microsatellites reach orbit

Theflagship of the STP-1 mission is Orbital Express, a two-spacecraft mission todemonstrate the feasibility of autonomously servicing a satellite in space.

Built forthe Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the $300 million vehiclesinclude the 2,100-pound (952-kilogram) ASTROservicing satellite and its 500-pound (226-kilogram) target NextSat [image].The spacecraft are expected to spend about three months testingautonomous satellite rendezvous, refueling and component replacement [image]in Earth orbit.

"We're veryproud to be at this point," USAF Lt. Col. Fred Kennedy, project manager forOrbital Express, said in a telephone interview before launch. "We've beenworking a long time to be at this stage."

Shortlyafter the Orbital Express spacecraft were deployed at 10:28 p.m. EST (0328March 9 GMT), the MidStar-1 microsatellite -- built by midshipmen at the U.S.Naval Academy [image]-- successfully reached orbit.

The 265-pound(116-kilogram) satellite carries a series of experiments, including a pairof space computer payloads, the Eclipse experiment to examine electrochemical membranesin space for NASA and Eclipse Energy Systems, and a prototype microdosimetersponsored by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI).

The ULAAtlas 5 rocket also orbited three other small spacecraft:

  • STPsat-1: A 343-pound (156-kilogram) satellite carrying two experiments to collect atmospheric data and demonstrate spacecraft technologies for the U.S. Air Force's Space Test Program [image].
  • Cibola Flight Experiment (CFEsat): A 350-pound (159-kilogram) satellite built for the Los Alamos National Laboratory to test a series of new technologies, including inflatable boom antennas, a new power supply and a prototype supercomputer designed to process data onboard rather than sending raw information directly to Earth [image].
  • FalconSat-3: Built by cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, the small, 119-pound (54-kilogram) satellite carries five experiments to study the near-Earth space plasma environment, test new hardware and demonstrate a Micropropulsion Attitude Control System [image].

"STP-1required an extraordinary level of coordination and innovation to achieve themission requirements," Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president of Atlas programs, saidin a statement. "One of those innovations was the mission design to achieve thetwo mission orbits, which was enabled by the development of a very flexible newguidance design."

Thursday's launch markedthe 80th consecutive successful space shot for an Atlas rocket and the ninth flightof the booster family's Atlas 5 variant.

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Tariq Malik

SPACE.COM EDITOR IN CHIEF — Tariq joined the team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, covering human spaceflight, exploration and space science. He became's Managing Editor in 2009. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Google+, Twitter and on Facebook.