Image: Delta 2 liftoff
A Boeing Delta 2 rocket lifts off from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday. The rocket successfully launched into orbit a replacement GPS navigation satellite for the U.S. Air Force. GPS provides directional guidance for the U.S. military as well as civilian users around the world.
updated 11/6/2004 6:03:59 PM ET 2004-11-06T23:03:59

After a series of delays, a Boeing Delta 2 rocket carrying a Global Positioning System satellite for the Air Force roared into space early Saturday.

The launch took place shortly after midnight and lit up the slightly overcast sky, dramatically silhouetting a bank of nearby clouds.

After a three-week checkout period, the spacecraft is set to become the 30th operational unit in the GPS constellation. The system requires a minimum of 24 satellites to operate at full capacity.

“It’s historic — we’ve never had 30 birds operational at the same time,” said Air Force Maj. Alan Edmiaston.

Originally designed for military use, the GPS system now is also widely used by civilians for tasks ranging from navigating the open seas to plotting a course to the nearest shopping mall.

Satellites in the constellation circle the earth every 12 hours in a nearly circular orbit 11,000 nautical miles above the planet.

The launch had been pushed back from September by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, which ripped through the area while the rocket sat exposed on its seaside pad. Despite the high winds, a Boeing spokesperson said the vehicle received only minor damage.

The roughly $45 million Lockheed Martin-built satellite will replace an aging unit launched in 1991. The Air Force said that spacecraft is still functioning, but has exceeded its life expectancy.

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