ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A Minotaur IV rocket was launched successfully Friday from a rocket launch facility on Kodiak Island in a cost-effective effort to send several satellites into space at the same time, officials said.
The rocket — the third Minotaur IV to be launched — lifted off as scheduled at about 4:25 p.m. Alaska Standard Time. It rose above the island off Alaska's coastline and was carrying 16 experiments on seven satellites.
"Picture perfect," Joe Davidson, spokesman for the Department of Defense's Space and Missile Systems Center, said after the lift-off.
The rocket took more than half an hour to reach its initial orbit and released the satellites in a choreographed sequence during its approximately 1 hour and 45-minute mission.
Lt. Col. Kent Nickle, responsible for the launch vehicle, said the mission went according to plan.
"We are very thrilled," he said.
The cost-effectiveness of the mission has enabled not only government scientists to participate but university students as well, including those from the University of Texas at Austin, the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy and the University of Michigan.
Col. Carol Welsch, director of the Department of Defense's Space Test Program, said the mission — the most complex in more than 20 years — is intended to inspire the next generation of astronauts, engineers and scientists.
"Small satellites are much more cost-effective to build than large satellites," Welsch said. "By being a little creative we are able to find a way to pack them all on in this one Minotaur IV rocket."
The $170 million mission constitutes a number of firsts, including seeing whether the Minotaur IV rocket and a special propulsion system can deliver payloads into two different orbits in space.
All seven satellites were launched when the rocket reached its first orbit at about 400 miles. Applause broke out in the control center when the new rocket propulsion system took the rocket to a higher orbit 746 miles above the Earth, proving the capability of a multi-orbit rocket launch.
"That is very experimental and we have never done it before," Welsch said.
NASA is using the launch to test a system to address the problem of orbiting space junk. The idea is to remove unwanted satellites more quickly from their orbits.
"The technology that is being tested out is a large sail that unfurls on orbit," Welsch said. The sail creates a drag, allowing the abandoned satellite to 'burn in' much faster than it would otherwise, she said.
The University of Texas at Austin experiment involves two spacecraft launched together that will then separate in order to look at how well they move relative to each other.
Other experiments include a better understanding of space weather, the survival of micro-organisms in space and the impact of space on military electronics.
The mission is the first time that a Minotaur IV rocket has been launched from the Kodiak Launch Complex. Welsch said the location is fantastic for a low-earth orbit mission.
Normally, these types of missions would be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but that location requires maneuvering the rocket, and burning up valuable propulsion energy, to avoid populated areas.
The trajectory around Kodiak Island is wide open, Welsch said.