Atlas launches foundation of ICO satellite system

Posted: June 19, 2001

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The orbital assembly of a new wireless telephone and data relay satellite network began today when a Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket successfully launched the cornerstone spacecraft for the ICO system.

Images of the Atlas 2AS rocket's launch of ICO F-2. Photo: Spaceflight Now/ILS TV
Liftoff from pad 36B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida occurred on schedule at 12:41 a.m. EDT (0441 GMT) after a smooth countdown.

The Atlas pierced the nighttime sky and headed on a northeastward track, paralleling the Eastern Seaboard.

The launch lasted nearly an hour and 53 minutes before the ICO F-2 satellite was released from the Centaur upper stage directly into its 5,460 nautical mile circular Medium Earth Orbit. Separation occurred above the Indian Ocean southwest of Australia.

The mission extended Atlas' string of successful flights to 55 dating back to 1993. It was the 22nd launch of an Atlas 2AS vehicle with strap-on solid rocket motors, all of which have been successful.

Boeing, the manufacturer of the ICO satellite, will put the craft through an initial round of checks through the first week of August. Then control of the satellite will be handed over to London-based ICO.

Although ICO's plans for launching the rest of its satellite constellation are up in the air, the company wanted to get its first spacecraft in orbit so a lengthy test program could begin. The tests will verify that the orbiting satellite and ICO's ground infrastructure can function together properly.

"This is a great day for ICO," said Greg Clarke, ICO chief executive officer. "This launch fundamentally changes the character of ICO."

ICO's first launch attempt met a disastrous end in March 2000 when the Sea Launch Zenit 3SL rocket carrying the ICO F-1 satellite malfunctioned. The rocket's second stage lost pressure and shut down, causing the vehicle and satellite to crash into the Pacific Ocean.

Since then, the ICO system has been revamped under the direction of Craig McCaw. With a $1.2 billion investment, McCaw brought ICO out of bankruptcy and updated the system design to include more data transmission and Internet services in addition to the original mobile telephone offering.

That change meant the ICO satellites needed some modification work, which Boeing performed. ICO also ordered three more spacecraft, bringing the total to 15.

Illustration of the ICO constellation. Photo: Boeing
The ICO constellation will be comprised of 10 primary satellites plus two orbiting spares. The spacecraft will be separated into two orthogonal planes, with each group having five main satellites and one backup. The planes will be inclined 45 degrees to the equator, allowing complete, overlapping coverage of the Earth.

Two other satellites will remain on Earth as ground spares, ready to launch as replacements if needed. The 15th satellite was the one lost in the Sea Launch failure.

Once the orbiting fleet is in place, ICO will begin its commercial services -- targeted for late 2003 -- to markets such as the maritime, transportation and oil and gas industries, governmental agencies and individual consumers. The ICO network will cover the planet and have the capacity to serve millions of global voice and data users.

Despite the lack of subscribers for the Iridium and Globalstar satellite telephone systems, ICO believes it is different and stands a better chance at success. The company cites its Internet connectivity, data relay, fax and global real-time and near real-time two-way messaging services along with telephone capability that will give its customers unmatched personal mobile communications.

An artist's concept of ICO satellite. Photo: Boeing
The 6,000-pound ICO satellites are modified versions of Boeing's popular 601-model design. They are 25 percent taller, standing 16 feet high due to the transmit and receive antennas. Each craft features an integrated C- and S-band payload with 5,100 watts of power and a peak effective isotropic radiated power of 58 dBW. They can support 4,500 simultaneous telephone calls. An onboard narrow band digital processor will perform channelization, routing and beam-forming of the S-band payload.

"This satellite design incorporates a number of unique design features," said Randy Brinkley, president of Boeing Satellite Systems. "The satellites carry more computing power than 600 Pentium III-based computers. They feature innovative transmit and receive antennas allowing direct air link to users and use a 'smart processor' capable of adapting beam configuration to match demand. These features give ICO unprecedented flexibility to meet ever-changing market demands on a global basis."

Tuesday's Atlas flight was managed by International Launch Services -- the U.S./Russian venture formed in 1995 to globally market Atlas and Proton rockets. It was the second ILS mission in four days following a Proton flight on Saturday that successfully delivered the ASTRA 2C direct-to-home TV satellite into orbit for Europe.

"With the Lockheed Martin Atlas and the Khrunichev-Energia Proton families, ILS has a range of vehicles to meet any customer's payload and schedule needs," said ILS President Mark Albrecht.

The ICO mission was the first Atlas launch of 2001. Five more are firmly scheduled:

  • July 15: Atlas 2A rocket with the GOES-M weather satellite for NASA and NOAA from Cape Canaveral.
  • Aug. 25: Atlas 2AS with a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
  • Oct. 2: Atlas 2AS with classified NRO payload from Cape Canaveral.
  • Oct. 30: Atlas 2A with NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-I (TDRS-I).
  • Dec. 19: Inaugural Atlas 3B with the commercial EchoStar-7 direct-to-home TV satellite.
Flight data file
Vehicle: Atlas 2AS (AC-156)
Payload: ICO F-2
Launch date: June 19, 2001
Launch window: 12:41-2:41 a.m. EDT (0441-0641 GMT)
Launch site: SLC-36B, Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Satellite broadcast: Telstar 5, Trans. 23, C-band

Pre-launch briefing
Launch timeline - Chart with times and descriptions of events to occur during the launch.

Ground track - See the trajectory the rocket will follow during its flight.

Atlas 2AS vehicle data - Overview of the rocket that will launch the classified NRO payload.

ICO - Description of the satellite to be launched on AC-156.

Launch windows - Listing of the available times to launch in coming days.

Restricted zone - Map outlining the Launch Hazard Area where mariners should remain clear for the liftoff.

Atlas index - A directory of our previous Atlas launch coverage.