Atlas V rocket launches Air force satellite at dawn in Florida

Florida’s Space Coast shook with an early morning liftoff Thursday as the U.S. Air Force launched the fifth satellite in a new communications network.

The Atlas V rocket by United Launch Alliance blasted off before sunrise at 6:13 a.m. from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Two issues with the rocket were investigated in the minutes before launch, pushing back the initial liftoff time by nearly half an hour. It was the 80th launch for an Atlas V rocket.

ULA’s next launch from Florida is expected to be the Orbital Flight Test of the new crewed space capsule, the Boeing Starliner, in September.

Lockheed Martin has been building the new satellite communications network for the military, called Advanced Extremely High Frequency, or AEHF. Northrop Grumman is the payload developer and manufacturer.

The Air Force says the AEHF network provides secure and jam-resistant communications for ground, sea and air units of the military. That would include allowing the National Security Council and military top brass to communicate under extreme conditions, such as a nuclear war.

AEHF also provides satellite communications to Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and Australia.

The AEHF network is the follow-on to the Milstar system, improving on the capabilities of Milstar. It eventually will include six satellites in geosynchronous earth orbit and provide 10 times the connectivity of the 1990s-era Milstar satellites. The first AEHF satellite was launched in 2010.

In a first for the Air Force, the rocket’s upper stage was also to release into orbit an experimental cubesat, or small satellite, to test technology for tracking orbital debris. The Air Force said the added cubesat represents its first “ride-share” for this type of national security launch.

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