A rocket launched from an Alaska island Tuesday is carrying an experimental Navy satellite designed to provide safer combat communications.
The satellite will allow troops with radios to communicate without the need to position antennas in dangerous settings, said Peter Wegner, director of the Department of Defense's Operationally Responsive Space Office.
The liftoff from the state-owned Kodiak Launch Complex for the Naval Research Laboratory project is for a yearlong mission. The system will be assessed after that period to determine if it should become permanent, Wegner said, after the satellite was sent up inside the nose of a Minotaur IV rocket.
"With this system you can stay in a covered area and pull out your radio and communicate with headquarters," he said. "It really is, I think, a huge potential life saver."
The orbit to be taken by the satellite is oval instead of round, giving longer periods of communications coverage in crucial areas, such as the Middle East. Wegner said the satellite is designed to circle the globe three times a day on average, providing seven- to- eight hours of coverage for troops who may get just a tiny fraction of that now from other satellites.
"If you're deployed in a mountainous region of Afghanistan today and you're a special operations team, you may get one 15-minute period of radio coverage in a day," he said.
The Office of Naval Research sponsored the project development and the first year of operations.
The total mission cost is $190 million, including the $45 million launch, which was conducted by the Air Force, Wegner said.
The commercial launch complex on Kodiak Island, about 275 miles southwest of Anchorage, is operated by the Alaska Aerospace Corp. and provides access to space for government and commercial interests.
The last rocket launch from the Kodiak complex occurred in November 2010 and involved sending small satellites to orbit. Past launches have also included drone rockets being used by the Missile Defense Agency to test the accuracy of the country's missile defense system. That testing is now done in Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific, eliminating much of the business of the Kodiak complex, which is seeking new customers.
The next launch is tentatively set for September 2013 and would involve aerospace companies including Lockheed Martin Corp. to send up small satellites for customers.
"There are others we are talking with," said Alaska Aerospace Corp. CEO Dale Nash.
Tuesday's blastoff occurred in clear, ideal weather, Nash said.
"It was a gorgeous launch, incredible launch," he said.
Ground crews were able to track the rocket's orbit except for an expected communications gap over the Pacific Ocean, where no ship-based antennas were available, Wegner said. The operations room was pretty tense during the 20-minute blackout, then communications resumed in Santiago, Chile.
"Everybody cheered and clapped and breathed a sigh of relief," Wegner said.