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United Launch Alliance closing in on 100 successful launches

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Jul 24, 2015, 9:21 UTC

Sen—United Launch Alliance racked up its 98th consecutive successful flight on Thursday, delivering a U.S. military Wideband Global SATCOM communications satellite into orbit.

Running a day late to wait out poor weather, a ULA Delta 4 rocket, flying with an upgraded RS-68A main engine, soared off its seaside launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 8:07 p.m. EDT (0007 UTC.)

The rocket carried the seventh member of the Air Force’s WGS network, which provides enhanced communications capabilities to the military, defense and national security agencies and international partners.

Since its debut in 2007, WGS spacecraft have been providing users with high-bandwidth, worldwide, anytime communications.

“A single WGS satellite has more communications capability than the entire (previous) constellation,” Doug Downs, an Air Force captain with the Military Satellite Communications Directorate, said during a launch webcast interview.

“It also provides the capability for cross-banding, which means you can connect the X-band and Ka-band for users that might be on those different bands at any time. This provides the unique ability to support the warfighter whether they’re at tactical headquarters or on the move,” Downs said.

The network, built by Boeing, collects and routes real-time data through thousands of terminals worldwide. It also supports the military’s Global Broadcast System

“You can think of this as being like Direct TV. It’s always there, always broadcasting. You just have to tune in,” Downs said.

The U.S. Air Force plans to launch three more WGS satellites by 2018 to complete the network.

WGS-7 cost about $445 million and is designed to last 14 years.

Over the next few months, Boeing will begin on-orbit testing of WGS-7 and prepare it for operational use, expected in early 2016, the Air Force said.

ULA’s next launch is slated for Aug. 31 from Florida. An Atlas 5 rocket will launch a narrowband communications satellite into orbit for the U.S. Navy.

The company’s 100th launch is targeted for September when another Atlas 5 flies from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base with a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.