NASA has launched a new communications satellite. The piece of space technology is the latest part of the agency's effort to strengthen its communication network between the International Space Station and earth.
The 19-story unmanned rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 9:33 p.m. local time Thursday (0233 UTC Friday). The 3.8 ton, Boeing-built satellite on board, called TDRS, will be the 12th member of the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System.
The first TDRS satellite was launched in 1983 and eight of the original 12 remain in orbit 22,300 miles (35,900 kilometers) above the earth. Positioned strategically over the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, they combine to continuously track and provide communication between ground controllers and the International Space Station, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope and a number of scientific satellites.
"This capability is analogous to standing at the top of the Empire State Building and tracking an ant as it marches its way down the sidewalk in front of the building," Boeing program director Andy Kopito said during a pre-launch press conference at the Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday.
NASA says the system has "revolutionized communications" for the agency "by allowing nearly continuous transmission of information during a mission."
Prior to TDRS, communications were ground based, meaning spotty connections and many gaps.
"Astronauts and Earth-orbiting scientific spacecraft would relay messages only when they passed over or near one of the ground stations," said NASA.
The modern-day human space program would not be possible without TDRS, said the agency's deputy associate administrator Badri Younes.
"Not only are we getting global coverage 100 percent of the time, we are getting it in real time," he said.
"Without such support, we'd have to live with coverage around 10 to 15 percent," Younes added.
"No human spaceflight program can be supported at this data rate. And even our ability to respond real time to emergency would be diminished drastically. So that's why the TDRS has been declared a national asset."
NASA is the primary TDRS user, but other countries' space agencies and the US military also use the system.
The satellite launched Thursday and its predecessor, launched in 2013, cost NASA a combined $715 million (520 million euros), said Younes. A 13th TDRS satellite has been ordered to ensure the system can remain in place until 2030.
dr/ccp (AFP, AP, Reuters)