CLOSE

Orbital ATK’s Minotaur IV, making its first launch from Florida, shot from long-dormant Launch Complex 46 at 2:04 a.m. Posted Aug. 26, 2017 Orbital ATK video.

A rocket powered by remnants of a Cold War nuclear missile bolted from Cape Canaveral early Saturday with an Air Force satellite that will track threats to military spacecraft high overhead.

Orbital ATK’s Minotaur IV, making its first flight from Florida, shot from long-dormant Launch Complex 46 at 2:04 a.m., catapulted by 500,000 pounds of thrust from the first of three decommissioned Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile motors.

Within a half-hour, the five-stage, solid-fueled rocket dropped off SensorSat, a coffee table-sized satellite, about 370 miles over the equator.  

From that vantage point, the $87.5 million mission will survey a region 22,000 miles higher up known as geostationary orbit or the “GEO belt,” home to critical national security satellites providing intelligence, communications, missile warning and weather data.

“It’s sort of analogous to a surveillance radar at an airport, which goes around and around and around and around, surveilling the domain,” said Grant Stokes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory, which built the satellite.

More: Hear that sonic boom? NASA F-18 supersonic flights underway over Space Coast

More: Elon Musk shares first photo of SpaceX’s sleek new spacesuit

An Orbital ATK Minotaur IV rocket lifts off from Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 2:04 a.m. Saturday, August 26, 2017. The rocket carried the ORS-5 SensorSat mission for the U.S. Air Force. (Photo: Jeffrey Margaritondo)

The 250-pound telescope will record the brightness and position of spacecraft seen as dots far above it. More capable spacecraft, including two pairs patrolling the higher orbit, will be able to take closer looks at any objects of interest.

Those could include potentially crippling space junk, but also Russian or Chinese spacecraft making aggressive maneuvers.

This is all part of the U.S. military’s renewed concern about being able to detect potential threats to its satellites in geostationary orbit,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation. “It’s increasingly concerned about other satellites or objects trying to get close to those satellites, either to do intelligence, but also to perhaps try and deny, disrupt, degrade, destroy them.”

That’s because space assets are more ingrained in daily operations than ever before.

“There’s basically not a military operation the U.S. has today that doesn’t rely on space to some extent,” said Weeden.

Autoplay

Show Thumbnails

Show Captions