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NASA launches trailblazing weather/climate satellite

After a five-year delay, NASA launched an Earth-observing satellite on Friday to test new technologies aimed at improving weather forecasts and monitoring climate change.
Image: Delta II Rocket Launches
LOMPOC, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 28: In this handout from NASA, A Delta II rocket launches with the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) spacecraft payload from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base on October 28, 2011outside of Lompoc, California. NPP is the first NASA satellite mission to address the challenge of acquiring a wide range of land, ocean, and atmospheric measurements for Earth system science while simultaneously preparing to address operational requirements for weather forecasting. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images
/ Source: staff and news service reports

After a five-year delay, NASA launched an Earth-observing satellite on Friday to test new technologies aimed at improving weather forecasts and monitoring climate change.

The $1.5 billion mission comes amid a year of weather extremes, ranging from the Midwest tornado outbreak to the Southwest wildfires to hurricane-caused flooding in New England.

"We've already had 10 separate weather events, each inflicting at least $1 billion in damages," said Louis Uccellini of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The satellite lifted off before dawn from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., aboard a Delta 2 rocket that sent it toward an orbit some 500 miles high.

"Smooth ride," flight commentator Steve Agid reported during the ascent.

The space agency already has a fleet of satellites circling the Earth, taking measurements of the atmosphere, clouds and oceans. But many are aging and need replacement.

The latest — about the size of a small school bus — is more sophisticated. It carries five different types of instruments to collect environmental data, including four that never before have flown into space.

One of the satellite's main jobs is to test key technologies that will be used by next-generation satellites set to launch in a few years.

NOAA meteorologists plan to feed the observations into their weather models to better anticipate and track hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme weather.

The information will "help us understand what tomorrow will bring," whether it's the next-day forecast or long-term climate change, said Andrew Carson, the mission's program executive at NASA Headquarters.

The satellite is part of a bigger program with a troubled history. Originally envisioned as a joint civil-military weather satellite project, ballooning costs and schedule delays caused the White House last year to dissolve the partnership.

Under the restructuring, the Defense Department is building its own military satellites while NASA is developing a new generation of research satellites for NOAA. Friday's launch was considered the first step toward that goal.

The satellite was supposed to fly in 2006, but problems during the development of several instruments forced a delay. NASA invested about $895 million in the mission while NOAA and the Air Force contributed $677 million.

For the launch, NASA invited 20 of its Twitter followers to Vandenberg, where they had front-row seats to view the liftoff. "Definitely a sight to behold," one of the tweeters, Bobby Lang, wrote from the launch site.

The satellite, built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., will spend the next five years circling the Earth from pole to pole about a dozen times a day. Data will be transmitted to a ground station in Norway and routed to the United States via fiber optic cable. NASA will manage the mission for the first three months before turning it over to NOAA.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and