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Powerful Atlas V rocket soars from Cape Canaveral on Space Force's first mission

Florida Today logo Florida Today 3/26/2020 Emre Kelly, Florida Today
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A top-of-the-line Atlas V rocket leapt off its Cape Canaveral pad Thursday afternoon, taking with it the first official mission for the newly established U.S. Space Force.

With the force of more than 2.5 million pounds of thrust, the United Launch Alliance rocket equipped with five solid rocket motors boosted a 14,500-pound military communications satellite, setting it up for a separation from the second stage about six hours after its 4:18 p.m liftoff. Launch Complex 41 hosted the mission under clear blue skies.

a close up of smoke: United Launch Alliance launched its Atlas V rocket with the Air Force's sixth and final Advanced Extremely High Frequency, or AEHF-6, satellite March 26, 2020, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 41. The satellite aims to provide highly-secure, jam-proof communications, which includes real-time video between U.S. national leadership and deployed military forces. Mandatory Credit: Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY via USA TODAY NETWORK © Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY United Launch Alliance launched its Atlas V rocket with the Air Force's sixth and final Advanced Extremely High Frequency, or AEHF-6, satellite March 26, 2020, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 41. The satellite aims to provide highly-secure, jam-proof communications, which includes real-time video between U.S. national leadership and deployed military forces. Mandatory Credit: Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY via USA TODAY NETWORK

Though the mission didn't launch at the opening of its two-hour window due to technical issues with hydraulic ground equipment, teams were able to work around the setback and launch less than an hour before the window closed.

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Atlas V's payload was AEHF-6, or the sixth and final Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite, built by Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, California. The constellation provides communications support to U.S. and allied military members and includes several Earth-observing instruments.

A single AEHF satellite is more powerful than the entire MILSTAR constellation it replaces. Those were launched through the 1990s and into the early 2000s.

Despite it being the final AEHF, it was the newly created Space Force's first national security mission. Located under the Air Force in the same way the Marine Corps slots under the Navy, the branch was established in December.

"Congrats (to United Launch Alliance) on today's successful launch of AEHF-6 – our first USSF National Security Space Launch," Space Force Commander Gen. Jay Raymond said after liftoff. "On behalf of the Space Force and joint warfighters who depend on protected (satellite communications) ... thank you!"

Though the coronavirus pandemic didn't delay Thursday's launch, the Space Coast's next mission – a SpaceX Falcon 9 – was indefinitely halted due to resource and travel restrictions caused by the virus. The rocket will eventually launch with an Argentinian communications satellite as soon as virus-related impacts subside.

Beyond that, SpaceX was slated to launch a batch of 60 more Starlink communications satellites in mid-April, but it remains to be seen if the company will be able to fly given the rapidly changing pandemic.

Contact Emre Kelly at aekelly@floridatoday.com or 321-242-3715. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @EmreKelly. Support his space journalism by subscribing at floridatoday.com/specialoffer/.

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Powerful Atlas V rocket soars from Cape Canaveral on Space Force's first mission

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