CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Boeing launched an unmanned Delta rocket carrying a new U.S. weather satellite towards orbit on Wednesday, the first with the ability to keep an eye on developing storms even when the solar-powered craft is in Earth's shadow.
The Boeing rocket carrying the satellite blasted off at 6:11 p.m. EDT (2211 GMT) from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, following a 15-month stay at the launch pad.
The mission was delayed due to technical problems with the rocket and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, and because of a machinists' strike.
The spacecraft is the first of three upgraded GOES weather satellites to be launched over the next few years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will use them to provide imagery and data for weather forecasting in North America and the rest of the Western Hemisphere.
The new satellite, designated GOES-13, will be the first to have enough battery power to continue data collection and transmission around the clock, even when the solar-powered craft is in Earth's shadow. Unlike its predecessors, the spacecraft also will be able to use sound wave technology to analyse the moisture content of storms.
With the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season starting on June 1, forecasters are eager to get the new spacecraft into orbit and ready to work as a backup in case one of the currently operating, though ageing, GOES satellites fails.
After reaching its operational altitude of 22,300 miles (35,680 km) above Earth's equator, the satellite will be tested for about six months to make sure its instruments are working properly. Then it will be put into orbital storage until it is needed to replace one of the three now in use.
Though GOES-13 is primarily intended to watch for storms, hurricanes and other threatening weather on Earth, it also has sensors to monitor the Sun for flares and other disruptions. Solar activity can knock out communication and navigation satellites as well as pose a threat to astronauts in space.
The GOES satellites are geostationary, meaning their orbits are synchronized with the Earth's rotation so they hover continuously over the same spot.