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Atlas 5 rocket successfully launches military satellite

Posted: April 3, 2009

It was a perfect Friday night flight for the Atlas 5 rocket, completing a military mission that put an advanced communications spacecraft into the sky to serve U.S. forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We only have one chance to get it right! In this profession you have to be meticulous to detail and patient to ensure mission success," said Capt. Jeffrey Fisher, the mission lead.

Credit: Pat Corkery/ULA
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Patience proved to be a virtue for the team, having experienced a long wait to see the 19-story rocket and Wideband Global SATCOM 2 spacecraft successfully thunder away from Cape Canaveral's Complex 41.

Technical challenges had held up the launch for several months, but the main engine and twin solid boosters finally lit at 8:31 p.m. EDT to begin a spectacular nighttime ascent.

About 31 minutes later high over Africa, the rocket's Centaur upper stage gently released the 12,790-pound satellite into the planned orbit.

"WGS 2 is truly an amazing spacecraft that will continue to expand the critical communications capability depended on by the joint warfighting team," said Col. Michael Moran, commander of the Atlas Group at the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center.

"Congratulations to the entire team for their hard work and dedication to the mission," said Brig. Gen. Edward L. Bolton Jr., 45th Space Wing commander at the Cape. "We're helping to give the most versatile and sophisticated technology to our warfighters."

Ground controllers will maneuver the satellite into a circular geostationary orbit and conduct an extensive testing program to fully check out the communications gear before the craft can enter service in September.

"This asset is intended to be on-orbit for 10 to 15 years," said Lt. Col. John Wagner, commander of the 45th Launch Support Squadron at the Cape. "This is going to be providing vital information 24/7/365."

The satellite will be parked over the equator around 60 degrees East longitude for use by U.S. Central Command in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of Southwest Asia, according to Col. William Harding, vice commander of the Military Satellite Communications Systems Wing at the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.

"WGS is a force multiplier for our troops in the field who defend America's freedom everyday," said James Bell, United Launch Alliance's WGS mission manager for Atlas and Delta.

A half-dozen WGS satellites will be put into space over the next few years to provide a major upgrade of the military's main communications infrastructure, replacing the aging Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS) spacecraft. Each WGS has 10 times the capacity of a DSCS satellite, allowing users to process and receive data quicker than ever before.

"The WGS system provides a quantum leap in communications bandwidth for Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, and is the DOD's highest capacity communications satellite," Harding said.

WGS 1 entered service last year to cover the vast Pacific Command that spans the U.S. western coast all the way to Southeast Asia.

"Users love it and we expect a similar reaction when we get WGS 2 up over CENTCOM," Harding said.

Built by Boeing, the sophisticated WGS spacecraft are constructed around the company's powerhouse 702-model design used by commercial satellite operators. But within the WGS craft are Ka- and X-band military communications packages to serve forces stationed around the globe.

The WGS craft offer X-band communications, like the venerable DSCS satellites, to relay data, photos and video to troops on the battlefield.

What WGS offers that DSCS does not is Ka-band communications. Officials describe the extra frequency as a way of serving up large amounts of information for reception by U.S. and allied forces across a wide area.

A third WGS satellite is scheduled for launch later this summer from Cape Canaveral aboard a Delta 4 rocket. It will be positioned over the Eastern Atlantic at an orbital slot of 12 degrees West longitude, Harding said, for U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command operations.

"WGS 3 has also completed a very rigorous test program and sits in storage in our factory here in El Segundo awaiting its call-up and launch later this year," said Mark Spiwak, WGS program director at Boeing.

Three additional satellites with enhanced features, known as WGS Block 2, are planned to launch in 2011, 2012 and 2013, respectively. The final one was purchased in cooperation with Australia.

"The six-vehicle WGS constellation will not only provide much greater throughput than DSCS, but the number of spacecraft receive and transmit beams available to support the user community will also increase more than four-fold, giving the system greater flexibility, agility and area coverage," said Col. Don Robbins, commander of the Wideband SATCOM Group at the MILSATCOM Systems Wing.

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