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Atlas 5 launches Intelsat communications satellite

Posted: November 23, 2009

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An international telecommunications satellite that will bridge the Atlantic with a broad reach to four continents was successfully hauled into orbit today aboard an Atlas 5 rocket that completed its last purely commercial launch for the foreseeable future.

Credit: Pat Corkery/United Launch Alliance
Commanding its kerosene-fed main engine to light as the countdown entered the final moments, the rocket roared to life and ignited the triple power provided by solid-fueled strap-on boosters at 1:55 a.m. EST (0655 GMT).

Within mere seconds, the 19-story Atlas carrying the Intelsat 14 spacecraft raced away from Cape Canaveral's Complex 41 and the quad lightning towers flanking the rocket's mobile launching platform.

Spectators for miles around witnessed the late-night space spectacle as the fiery rocket exhaust climbed toward high clouds that concealed the starry sky. Pictures taken from the Kennedy Space Center press site are posted here and pad camera shots are posted here.

The solid boosters burned for 90 seconds, then later peeled away from the first stage that continued powering the vehicle via the RD-180 main engine.

About four-and-a-half minutes into the ascent, staging occurred and the Centaur started its hydrogen-fueled powerplant for a lengthy firing to reach a highly elliptical parking orbit around the planet.

The burn lasted nearly 14 minutes to inject the upper stage and attached Intelsat payload into a preliminary perch that was targeted to have a low point of 109 statute miles, a high point of 16,158 statute miles and inclination of 25 degrees.

Centaur completed its first burn above the central Atlantic Ocean and began a 95-minute coast over Africa, Madagascar and the southern Indian Ocean. The RL10 cryogenic engine restarted for a 93-second firing to propel the spacecraft into a geosynchronous transfer orbit that aimed for 3,743 statute miles at its lowest point, 23,830 statute miles at its highest and inclined 22.48 degrees to the equator.

Release of the payload from the rocket to complete the launch took place at T+plus 1 hour and 58 minutes, or 3:53 a.m. EST.

The launch came 10 years to the very night of Spaceflight Now's debut on the Internet with coverage of its first rocket flight -- an Atlas 2A vehicle with the Navy's UHF F10 communications satellite.

Intelsat 14 will maneuver itself into a circular geostationary orbit over the next several days, eventually matching Earth's rotation and appearing fixed over the equator at 45 degrees West longitude, said Thierry Guillemin, Intelsat's senior vice president and chief technical officer.

Global satellite operator Intelsat will use the new spacecraft to provide television, data and other services to North and South America, Africa and Europe.

The 12,375-pound craft was built by Space Systems/Loral and features 40 C-band and 22 Ku-band transponders. Its design life stretches some 15 years.

Intelsat 14 is slated to replace the Intelsat 1R satellite currently operating in that orbital slot. It was launched by an European Ariane 5 rocket nine years ago this month.

"This launch kicks off the largest fleet investment campaign in Intelsat's history. We have 11 satellites slated for launch over the next three years. The launch program refreshes capacity across our global fleet and enhances our inventory, allowing better performance and applications expected to drive growth into the quarter century mark," said Dave McGlade, chief executive officer of Intelsat.

Today's launch was arranged through a deal made in 2004. That contract was signed during the early days of Atlas 5 missions when the rocket's schedule was dominated by commercial satellite launches.

But in more recent years, flights dedicated to the U.S. government have become the mainstay for Atlas with only a few commercial flights scattered among the lineup of Air Force and NASA launches.

In fact, the successful completion of the Intelsat 14 launch means there are no other commercial satellites presently booked on the Atlas manifest.

"It's currently the last contracted commercial launch for Atlas. We continue to offer Atlas to the commercial marketplace for launches in the future," said David Markham, president of Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services.

"In the near-term -- the next couple, three years -- we have in our business plan one or two commercial launches a year to be intermixed with our current government backlog. We've shared those kinds of launch frequency opportunities with operators and satellite manufacturers, and we've also had conversations with (the Air Force) to show them our business plans and how we would mix commercial launch missions in with government manifests. We have received very, very strong support from the Air Force to accommodate commercial launches going forward."

"It is a pleasure to be back at Cape Canaveral and aboard the United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 rocket," McGlade said. It was the 31st Intelsat spacecraft to fly on an Atlas vehicle since 1971.

"Given the solid demand for commercial satellite capacity, it would be great to see more commercial launches join the government and scientific missions that occupy ULA's manifest today," McGlade said.

Lockheed Martin, which retains the rights to market Atlas commercially while United Launch Alliance sells the rocket to U.S. government customers, has sought to strike a deal with a large satellite operator to serve as an anchor client for the vehicle.

"It is still the essence of our marketing approach to find a customer that we can set up a repetitive practice and understanding. We are focusing our conversations to a couple of customer sets about the capabilities of our system," Markham said.

"We have identified, as is the instance here with Intelsat 14, we believe there is a real strong strategic alignment with commercial operators that are hosting (U.S. government) payloads on commercial satellites to think about Atlas as a launch solution. It serves the government customer sets in the end as well."

Intelsat 14 is fitted with an experimental communications package called IRIS, or Internet Router In Space, as part of a Department of Defense technology demonstration.

"We believe IRIS will extend broadband services on demand in the sky. The Cisco IRIS payload will merge communications received on various frequency bands and transmit them to multiple users," said Steve Boutelle, vice president of Cisco Global Government Solutions Group.

IRIS will test a space-based computer processor that would allow U.S. military and allied forces to communicate with each other using Internet protocol for voice, video and data relay. If the concept is successful, designers say the system would enhance performance and reduce signal degradation from atmospheric conditions.

"Such hosted payload programs are prime examples of how governments can take advantage of commercial platforms to meet long-term communication requirements in an economical way. Once operational, IS 14 will showcase how every commercial satellite going into orbit creates an opportunity for a technology testbed or deployment of an operational capability," McGlade said.

This was the fifth and final Atlas flight for 2009. Upcoming on the agenda in 2010 will be NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory to monitor the sun, currently scheduled to fly in early February, followed by the spring launch of the Pentagon's Orbital Test Vehicle, a military spaceplane known as X-37B.

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