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Atlas rocket puts HDTV satellite in orbit

An old-generation Atlas 2 puts a new-generation television satellite into orbit, opening the way for more high-definition cable channels in the United States.
/ Source: Reuters

A Lockheed Martin Atlas 2 rocket blasted off from Florida on Wednesday carrying a 2.5-ton high-definition television satellite that will bring the new format to some familiar cable offerings in the United States.

Lockheed reported a clean liftoff from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 6:22 p.m. ET, followed 28 minutes later by the separation of the AMC-11 satellite, built by Lockheed for SES Americom, from the rocket’s second stage.

This was one of the last rockets launched in what has become an old-fashioned way, with the launch team hunkered down in a concrete bunker with 12-foot (3.6-meter) thick walls just 800 feet (240 meters) from the launch pad. The launch controller actually pushed a button.

Phasing out older rockets
Both Lockheed and its chief U.S. rival, the Boeing Co., are quickly phasing out older-generation rockets in favor of new models that are more powerful, more flexible and, if the industry is correct, more reliable.

Lockheed’s Atlas 5 does away with such trappings as the launch tower and the button and can be rolled out to a nearly bare pad just 12 hours before launch.

Wednesday’s Atlas 2, by comparison, had spent about three months on the pad in preparation for its flight.

“It’s very nearly the end of an era,” said Mike Jenson, vice president for operations for Lockheed’s commercial launch arm, International Launch Services.

More HDTV channels
The AMC-11 satellite will become the second of two in SES Americom’s premier cable neighborhood, H-D Prime, providing digital transmission across the United States.

Viacom and NBC Universal, which is 80 percent owned by General Electric Co., will be among the biggest users of the satellite as they prepare to offer high-definition versions of many standard cable networks, said Bryan McGuirk, senior vice president of domestic satellite service for SES Americom, part of SES Global. (NBC is a partner in the MSNBC joint venture.)

Among the cable offerings it will provide in high definition are A&E, Showtime, Bravo, Univision, The Weather Channel, Discovery and the Food Network, McGuirk said.

“We think HD’s a big deal. More than 70 million households in the U.S. can receive HD and it’s the fastest-growing segment of the cable sector,” McGuirk said.