NASA launches next-generation tracking and comms satellite

NASA’s ability to track satellites and orbiting spacecraft is about to get a big boost, following the launch last night of a next-generation communication satellite.

The first of three Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS), known as TDRS-K, launched at 8:48 pm EST last night from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

“TDRS-K bolsters our network of satellites that provides essential communications to support space exploration,” says Badri Younes, deputy associate administrator for Space Communications and Navigation at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It will improve the overall health and longevity of our system.”

The TDRS system provides tracking, telemetry, command and high-bandwidth data return services for a whole range of science and human exploration missions orbiting Earth. These include the International Space Station and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

“With this launch, NASA has begun the replenishment of our aging space network,” says project manager Jeffrey Gramling. “This addition to our current fleet of seven will provide even greater capabilities to a network that has become key to enabling many of NASA’s scientific discoveries.”

TDRS-K is a much-improved version of the system, with redesigned telecommunications payload electronics and a high-performance solar panel designed for more spacecraft power. One big change is a return to ground-based processing of data, which will give more flexibility and allow the system to service more customers.

The next TDRS spacecraft, TDRS-L, is scheduled for launch in 2014; the third should be built by 2015.