It was the 45th Atlas V launch since it began flying in 2002, but only the second in this configuration.

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CAPE CANAVERAL (FloridaToday.com) – Thursday's on-time launch of a U.S. intelligence satellite gave the Air Force a few days to prepare the Eastern Range for its next mission: SpaceX's planned 4:58 p.m. Monday liftoff of cargo to the International Space Station.

United Launch Alliance kicked off the nearly back-to-back countdowns at 1:45 p.m. Thursday, when an Atlas V rocket bolted from its Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with nearly two million pounds of thrust.

Trailing a white column of exhaust as it shot east over the Atlantic Ocean through a clear sky, the 196-foot rocket carrying a classified National Reconnaissance Office satellite was performing well several minutes into flight, before ULA ended its launch broadcast to preserve the mission's secrecy.

About four hours later, ULA confirmed the launch was a success.

"We are honored to deliver this national security asset to orbit," said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president for Atlas and Delta programs, in a statement.

Amateur astronomers experienced in tracking satellites, including secret NRO payloads, believe the satellite may be first of a new type of signals intelligence spacecraft, bound for a geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles above the equator.

The speculation takes into account the flight's trajectory and a powerful Atlas V rocket capable of delivering the satellite directly to a high-altitude orbit. The booster was aided by four strap-on solid rocket boosters, and the Centaur upper stage was thought to be equipped for a longer-than-usual flight requiring several engine burns.

The mission's logo featured a blue Pegasus and the Latin motto "In Scientia Opportunitas," or "In knowledge, there is opportunity."

The launch was delayed more than two weeks when an electrical short disabled an essential Air Force tracking radar.

The 45th Space Wing activated a backup radar so launches could proceed while the damaged one is repaired, and reported no problems Thursday.

"I am proud of the persistence and focus of the launch team, the wing, NRO, ULA and other mission partners, to make this launch happen," Brig. Gen. Nina Armango, 45th Space Wing commander, said in a statement.

It was the 45th Atlas V launch since it began flying in 2002, but only the second in this configuration.

And it was ULA's second Atlas V mission in a week, following the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture's successful April 3 launch of a military weather satellite from California.

Denver, Colo.-based ULA could try two Cape launches next month. A Delta IV rocket is targeting a May 15 liftoff with a Global Positioning System satellite, before an Atlas V flies with another NRO mission.

But first, SpaceX on Monday will attempt to loft its third ISS resupply mission under a $1.6 billion NASA contract, and possibly follow that with a commercial satellite launch before the end of the month.

Contact Dean at 321-242-3668.

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