CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - An unmanned Atlas 5 rocket blasted off on Wednesday to put the first of a new generation of NASA communications satellites into orbit, where it will support the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope and other spacecraft.
The 191-foot (58-metre) rocket lifted off at 8:48 p.m. (0148 GMT Thursday), the first of 13 planned launches in 2013 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station just south of NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
Once in position 22,300 miles (35,900 km) above the planet, the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, known as TDRS and built by Boeing Co, will join a seven-member network that tracks rocket launches and relays communications to and from the space station, the Hubble observatory and other spacecraft circling Earth.
Two other TDRS spacecraft were decommissioned in 2009 and 2011 respectively and shifted into higher "graveyard" orbits. A third satellite was lost in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger accident.
NASA used its space shuttle fleet for launching the satellites until 1995, then switched in 2000 to unmanned Atlas rockets, manufactured by United Space Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
With six operational satellites and a seventh spare, NASA can track and communicate with spacecraft in lower orbits, such as the space station, which flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.