US military satellite launched after 15-year hold

US military satellite launched after 15-year hold

CAPE CANAVERAL - A US military weather satellite, refurbished after more than a decade in storage, blasted off aboard an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Thursday, a live webcast of the launch showed.

The sleek, 191-foot-tall (58-meter) rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, lifted off at 10:46 a.m. EDT (1446 GMT) to put the Defence Meteorological Satellite Program or DMSP spacecraft into a 530-mile-high (853 km) orbit passing over Earth's poles. United Launch Alliance is a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.

The US$518 million (S$655 million) satellite, known as DMSP-19 and built by Lockheed Martin, joins six other operational DMSP satellites already in orbit.

The US Air Force was prepared to launch DMSP-19 about 15 years ago, but the satellites in orbit were lasting much longer than expected so it went into storage instead, said Scott Larrimore, weather programme director at the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.

The same fate may await the 20th and final DMSP satellite, which is being built now and targeted to launch in 2020. The Air Force, however, is mulling whether to fly it at all or launch it early to avoid costly storage fees, among other options, Larrimore told reporters during a pre-launch conference call on March 27.

That discussion is part of a larger effort to reassess military space programs in an attempt to cut costs, take advantage of new technologies and partner with other agencies when possible, he added.

The US Air Force already shares data with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and will be stepping up the partnership in a new generation of weather satellites designed to serve both military and civilian needs.

It also is looking into a supplemental satellite programme that can fly on smaller rockets, such as Orbital Sciences Corp's Minotaur.

DMSP-19, which is designed to last five years, is equipped with visible light and infrared cameras to image clouds - day and night - and sensors to measure precipitation, temperatures and soil moisture. The DMSP satellites also collect data about the oceans, solar storms that affect Earth and other global meteorological conditions. "Weather is a vital element of well-planned missions," said Lockheed Martin programme director Sue Stretch. "High winds limit aircraft; storms threaten ships; and low-visibility can alter troop movements. The data the DMSP provides is essential to mission success."

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