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Liftoff! Atlas Rocket Launches U.S. Spy Satellite Into Orbit

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — An unmanned Atlas 5 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Thursday to put a classified satellite into orbit for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.

The 20-story tall rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, blasted off its seaside launch pad at 1:45 p.m. ET (1745 GMT). United Launch Alliance is a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

No information about the rocket's payload was released. The secretive National Reconnaissance Office designs, builds and operates the nation's fleet of spy satellites.

Image: Unmanned Atlas 5 rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral with a spy satellite
An unmanned Atlas 5 rocket blasted off Thursday from Cape Canaveral carrying a spy satellite.WESH

The rocket was outfitted with a single upper-stage Centaur engine and four strap-on solid rocket motors, all built by Aerojet Rocketdyne. In that configuration, the Atlas 5 can deliver up to about 7,800 pounds (3,500 kg) into an orbit 22,300 miles above Earth, United Launch Alliance documents show.

The launch originally was slated for March 25, but a radar system needed to track the rocket during flight short-circuited, prompting a delay. The Air Force reactivated a spare radar while repairs to the damaged system are under way.

The radar is part of a safety system that ensures a failed rocket will not threatened populated areas. If a rocket leaves its planned flight path, officials can detonate explosives on the vehicle so that debris rains down in the ocean.

The radar problem also sidelined a Space Exploration Technologies' Falcon 9 rocket launch for NASA that had been scheduled for March 30. The rocket, now targeted to fly on Monday, will be carrying a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles above Earth.

— Reuters