CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA's super-high-flying fleet of communication satellites just got bigger.
An unmanned Atlas 5 rocket blasted into a chilly, clear sky Thursday night carrying the latest, third-generation Tracking and Data Relay Satellite.
NASA uses the TDRS satellites to support the International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope, among other craft. The network is 22,300 miles (35,900 kilometers) high, at various locations above the equator, and allows continuous two-way contact with the space station and its six inhabitants.
The TDRS system is so vital it's considered a national asset.
NASA is the primary user; the TDRS system also occasionally assists other countries' space agencies and the U.S. military. In 2002, a TDRS satellite allowed Massachusetts doctors to oversee knee surgery performed at the South Pole.
This newest $350 million satellite — which will work its way up from a temporarily low orbit — is designated "L" in the TDRS series. NASA will rename it TDRS-12 once it's checked out in orbit, by late spring.
Thursday's liftoff was delayed briefly by a last-minute data dropout with the Atlas V rocket. Launch controllers worked around the problem.