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Written by James Dean, Florida Today

(FLORIDA TODAY)--A Global Positioning System satellite rocketed to space Thursday evening, the first of three in line to replace aging members of the Air Force's largest constellation in the coming months.

A Delta IV rocket blasted off at 8:59 p.m. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the mission's first launch attempt. It was expected to deploy the 3,600-pound spacecraft after midnight.

Delayed briefly by high solar radiation levels that could have damaged the rocket's electronics, the 20-story United Launch Alliance booster bolted from its Launch Complex 37 pad and blazed into the night sky, reaching 10 times the speed of sound within a few minutes.

Two solid rocket motors burned out and separated early in the flight, flashing like fire flies as they tumbled to the ocean. The rocket disappeared from view when its main engine cut off more than four minutes into flight, and the upper stage continued on.

The satellite is the fifth of 12 in the new generation called Block IIF, or 2F, built by Boeing.

It was on course to become one of 31 GPS satellites circling Earth twice a day more than 11,000 miles high, providing precision navigation and timing information upon which the military and civilians depend.

The systems guide troops, vehicles and weapons, and are deeply integrated into everyday life and business, from providing your location on a phone to time-stamping financial transactions, running electric grids and helping farmers apply fertilizer more precisely.

Should the system ever encounter a serious disruption, "I actually think that the civil community would probably be pounding on our doorstep first and foremost," Col. William Cooley, Global Positioning Systems director at the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center, said before the launch.

"What I'm surprised at in this job, probably more than other satellite systems, is the tremendous reliance and success of how GPS is being used worldwide for so many other things that we don't even think about and we kind of take for granted," he added.

The new, more capable GPS satellite was slated to replace a 16-year-old veteran that will remain available as a backup, along with five others, just in case.

Two more GPS satellites are targeted for launch from the Cape in May and July on ULA's Delta IV and Atlas V rockets, respectively.

Thursday's launch was postponed from October by an ongoing investigation into an upper stage engine problem during a successful 2012 launch. ULA said additional analysis confirmed it had already taken appropriate steps to improve engine inspections and performance.

The launch was the third from the Cape this year, and ULA's second. It was the 25th by a Delta IV rocket since it began flying in 2002.

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