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U.S. military satellite launched after 15-year hold

An Atlas 5 ULA (United Launch Alliance) rocket carrying a satellite for the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program is launched from Vanden
An Atlas 5 ULA (United Launch Alliance) rocket carrying a satellite for the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program is launched from Vanden

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - A U.S. military weather satellite, refurbished after more than a decade in storage, blasted off aboard an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Thursday, a live webcast of the launch showed.

The sleek, 191-foot-tall (58-meter) rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, lifted off at 10:46 a.m. EDT to put the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program or DMSP spacecraft into a 530-mile-high orbit passing over Earth's poles. United Launch Alliance is a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.

The $518 million satellite, known as DMSP-19 and built by Lockheed Martin, joins six other operational DMSP satellites already in orbit.

The U.S. Air Force was prepared to launch DMSP-19 about 15 years ago, but the satellites in orbit were lasting much longer than expected so it went into storage instead, said Scott Larrimore, weather program director at the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.

The same fate may await the 20th and final DMSP satellite, which is being built now and targeted to launch in 2020. The Air Force, however, is mulling whether to fly it at all or launch it early to avoid costly storage fees, among other options, Larrimore told reporters during a pre-launch conference call on March 27.

That discussion is part of a larger effort to reassess military space programs in an attempt to cut costs, take advantage of new technologies and partner with other agencies when possible, he added.

The U.S. Air Force already shares data with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and will be stepping up the partnership in a new generation of weather satellites designed to serve both military and civilian needs.

It also is looking into a supplemental satellite program that can fly on smaller rockets, such as Orbital Sciences Corp's Minotaur.

DMSP-19, which is designed to last five years, is equipped with visible light and infrared cameras to image clouds - day and night - and sensors to measure precipitation, temperatures and soil moisture. The DMSP satellites also collect data about the oceans, solar storms that affect Earth and other global meteorological conditions.

"Weather is a vital element of well-planned missions," said Lockheed Martin program director Sue Stretch. "High winds limit aircraft; storms threaten ships; and low-visibility can alter troop movements. The data the DMSP provides is essential to mission success."

(Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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