By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - An unmanned rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Thursday to put the newest member of NASA's space communications network into orbit.
The 19-story tall Atlas 5 rocket, built and launched by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, lifted off at 9:33 p.m. EST (0233 GMT Friday).
With the 3.8-ton (3,447-kg) Boeing-built Tracking and Data Relay Satellite perched on its nose, the rocket blazed through clear, star-filled skies as it headed southeast over the Atlantic Ocean toward orbit.
The satellite, called TDRS, is the 12th built for a NASA constellation that circles more than 22,300 miles above Earth. The satellites are strategically positioned over the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans where they can continuously track and communicate with the space station and dozens of other fast-moving spacecraft some 22,000 miles below.
"This capability is analogous to standing at the top of the Empire State Building and tracking an ant as it marches its way down the sidewalk in front of the building," Boeing program director Andy Kopito told reporters during a prelaunch press conference at the Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday.
Eight members of the network currently remain in orbit. Two have been decommissioned and were incinerated as they fell back into Earth's atmosphere. A third satellite was destroyed in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger accident.
NASA ordered a 13th and final TDRS satellite to ensure the network can operate through 2030. By then, NASA expects to transition to laser communications and other upgrades that will significantly boost capability and cut costs, said NASA deputy associate administrator Badri Younes.
NASA paid a combined $715 million for the TDRS satellite launched on Thursday and its predecessor, launched in January 2013, Younes said.
That amount also covered ongoing upgrades to its prime ground communications station in White Sands, New Mexico. The next satellite, which should be ready for launch in 2016, will cost about $290 million. TDRS network operation and maintenance add another $70 million to $80 million a year, Younes said.
Besides supporting the space station, a $100 billion project of 15 nations, the TDRS satellites are used by NASA's fleet of Earth-observing satellites and telescopes, such as the Hubble observatory.
Other agencies, including the U.S. military and non-U.S. space agencies, use the TDRS network on a part-time and as-needed basis. The tracking and communications services also are available to commercial companies - including United Launch Alliance, which uses TDRS to track its rockets during liftoff.
One minute on TDRS' highest bandwidth, which is 300 megabits per second, costs $139, Younes said, although many non-NASA users barter for time on the network. NASA also is shifting from per-minute fees to charging based on percentage of use, he added.
(Editing by Eric Walsh and Lisa Shumaker)