CAPE CANAVERAL, US - An unmanned Atlas 5 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Tuesday with a next-generation communications satellite designed to provide cellular-like voice and data services to US military forces around the world.
The 20-story-tall rocket, manufactured and flown by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, lifted off at 8:04 p.m. EST/0104 GMT, the first of 13 missions the company plans for this year.
Perched on top of the rocket was the third spacecraft for the US Navy's $7.3 billion Mobile User Objective System, or MUOS, network, which is intended to provide 3G-like cellular technology to vehicles, ships, submarines, aircraft and troops on the move.
"MUOS is a game-changer in communications for our warfighters," Iris Bombelyn of satellite manufacturer Lockheed Martin said in a statement before launch.
The planned five-satellite system is designed for high-fidelity, secure voice conversations, networked conference calls and data relay services, including video, worldwide.
With two satellites already in orbit, a third on its way and two more scheduled for launch, MUOS will supplement and eventually replace the Navy's Ultra High Frequency Follow-On satellite system to provide 10 times more capacity than the current network, said Joe Kan, the Navy's MUOS programme manager.
"MUOS is going to bring a lot of capability," Kan, a Navy captain, told reporters in a conference call before launch."It's a very pervasive system, used by all the services - Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and other partners."
Topping the scales at nearly 15,000 pounds (6,804 kg), the MUOS satellite needed the heaviest-lift Atlas rocket, which was outfitted with five strap-on solid rocket motors built by GenCorp Inc's Aerojet Rocketdyne.
The fourth MUOS launch is planned for later this year and the fifth, which will serve as an on-orbit spare, is due to fly in 2016, the Navy said.