NASA has launched another next-generation communications satellite to help beam data from the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station (ISS) and other orbiting spacecraft down to Earth.
The $408 million TDRS-M satellite lifted off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket today (Aug. 18) at 8:29 a.m. EDT (1229 GMT) from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after a half-hour delay due to a technical issue with the booster that was swiftly resolved.
TDRS-M is headed for geosynchronous orbit, about 22,300 miles (35,800 kilometers) above Earth. It will join nine other operational spacecraft in NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) constellation, which together allow the nearly continuous transmission of data from Hubble, the ISS and other near-Earth research and exploration craft to mission controllers on the ground. [How NASA's TDRS Communications Satellites Work ]
The TDRS satellites and their associated ground terminals make up NASA's Space Network (not to be confused with the agency's Deep Space Network, a different system that handles data from far-flung spacecraft such as the Cassini Saturn orbiter and the New Horizons probe).
"TDRS-M is going to be critical to our future operation and the future of the Space Network," Badri Younes, NASA's deputy associate administrator for space communications and navigation, said during a prelaunch news conference yesterday (Aug. 17).
Indeed, the newly launched satellite should allow the Space Network to continue supporting communications through at least the mid-2020s, NASA officials said.
NASA began planning out the TDRS system in the early 1970s, and the first satellite in the network was launched in 1983. A total of 13 have now taken to the skies, and nine (not counting TDRS-M) are currently operational.
Seven TDRS satellites lifted off between 1983 and 1995 aboard NASA's space shuttles; four of these "first-generation" craft are still operational today. (Two were retired, and one was destroyed in the January 1986 Challenger tragedy.) Three "second-generation" craft launched between 2000 and 2002. The remaining three are "third generation"; they launched in 2013, 2014 and today, respectively. (TDRS-M is a third-generation satellite as well.)
The first-generation TDRS satellites were built by aerospace company TRW (which was acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2002). The others, including TDRS-M, have been built by Boeing.
It will take a little while for TDRS-M to come online, even after the satellite reaches its final orbit and deploys its solar panels and antennas.
"It takes about three to four months following deployments for us to fully characterize the spacecraft, and to show that it will meet mission requirements and provide the RF [radio frequency] performance that is needed to support our users," said Dave Littmann, TDRS-M project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
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Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.