CAPE CANAVERAL - A U.S. Air Force satellite paid for by Australia is in orbit today after the launch Wednesday of both an American rocket and the future of allied military satellite communications.
In a deal that gives the Australian Defence Force access to a constellation of U.S. military communications satellites, the commonwealth paid $707 million to fund the Boeing-built spacecraft as well as the United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket that propelled it into orbit.
"It really helps all parties," said Dave Madden, the MILSATCOM director at the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.
The deal lowers the overall U.S. cost of operating a six-satellite constellation of Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) spacecraft, he said.
It provides critical capability to Australia and enables U.S. and Australian military forces to use the same communications system when deployed together.
"So it really was a win-win, I believe, for all parties," Madden said. "And the bottom line is the cooperation we've had with Australia has been extremely successful."
So successful that the U.S. last year signed a similar deal with a five-nation group that includes Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Those countries will pay to build and launch the ninth in a series of 10 WGS spacecraft.
"You know, when budgets get tight, I always say that it actually forces people to think more and work harder together, and I think the reductions in the budgets are going to enable us to form some very strong partnerships with a lot of our allied partners," Madden said. "I think it's a very promising environment in the future to have more agreements like this."
Mounted atop the 217-foot-tall Delta IV rocket, the sixth WGS spacecraft blasted off from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:29 p.m.
Liftoff came 21 minutes after sunset and the launch turned out to be one of the most spectacular in recent memory.
Four strap-on solid rocket boosters peeled away from the rocket 100 seconds into flight, and the 53-foot-long motors twinkled against an ethereal twilight sky, tumbling toward the Atlantic.
Launch viewers from Jacksonville to south Florida and from the Space Coast to Sarasota reported seeing first and second stage separation, or payload fairing jettison, or both.
"Imagine our surprise to see it while vacationing in Man-O-War Cay in the Bahamas," a launch viewer named Ann Marie posted in Florida Today's countdown blog.
The WGS satellites provide high data rate communications to soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen deployed on missions around the world. The White House Communications Agency and the U.S. State Department are among other users.
A single WGS satellite is more capable than an entire constellation of previous-generation Defense Satellite Communications System spacecraft, Air Force officials say.
The first of the new-generation WGS satellites was launched in 2007; the second and third followed in 2009; the fourth was launched in 2012 and the fifth blasted off in May.
The satellites have a design life of 14 years.
Next up for United Launch Alliance: The Aug. 28 launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base of a Delta IV Heavy rocket and a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.
Next up for ULA at the Cape: The Sept. 25 launch of an Atlas V rocket with an Advanced Extremely High Frequency military communications satellite.
The spacecraft is the third of four being built by Lockheed Martin under an Air Force contract.