Atlas V roars to life with spy satellite on board

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL (Florida Today) -- A powerful Atlas V rocket shot from its Cape Canaveral pad at 1:45 p.m. Thursday, boosting a classified reconnaissance satellite toward orbit.

United Launch Alliance's live webcast of the mission ended less than four minutes into the flight to help preserve the secrecy of the National Reconnaissance Office mission, just after successful separation of the rocket's payload fairing.

Up to that point, the mission appeared to be off to a good start.

A quiet countdown and perfect weather culminated in the 196-foot rocket igniting its Russian-made RD-180 main engine and four strap-on solid rocket boosters to leap from the pad with nearly two million pounds of thrust.

The boosters fell away about two minutes into the flight, and the first stage was performing normally when the 16-foot diameter payload fairing split away.

Amateur astronomers who are experienced in tracking satellites believe the satellite is headed for a geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles above the equator, where it will collect signals intelligence.

The launch was ULA's 45th of an Atlas V rocket, but just the second in this configuration with the four solid boosters. And it was the company's second Atlas V mission in a week, after the launch of a military weather satellite from California last Thursday.

Today's flight was delayed more than two weeks by the Air Force's loss of a critical tracking radar to an electrical short. The Eastern Range reported no problems today with a backup radar activated.

The range will be tested again soon: SpaceX is targeting a 4:58 p.m. Monday launch of a Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule ferrying cargo to the International Space Station for NASA.

Watch the Atlas V rocket launch:


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