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HD launch signals end of era in rocket technology for orbiting broadcast satellites

Though it may be a new beginning for HD television distribution, the recent launch of Lockheed Martin’s soon-to-be-retired Atlas 2AS rocket marks the final days of traditional space launches for TV satellites.

The Atlas 2AS, the oldest Atlas version in use, is scheduled for one more launch (a classified mission) before it is retired after June 30. Fitted with four Thiokol-built strap-on solid rocket boosters that distinguishes it from other Atlas configurations, the 2AS has been in service since 1993 with a 100 percent success rate during 29 launches.

The June 30 flight represents the finale of the entire Atlas 2-series of vehicles (2, 2A and 2AS), which gave Lockheed Martin its foothold in the commercial satellite launch business.

Transition to the newer Atlas 5 rocket will significantly change the way satellites are launched, Reuters reported. Traditionally, the launch team is hunkered down in a concrete bunker with 12-foot-thick walls just 800 feet from the launch pad. The launch controller actually pushes a button to launch the rocket.

However, both Lockheed and its chief U.S. rival, Boeing, are quickly phasing out older generation rockets in favor of new models that are more powerful, more flexible and, if the industry is correct, more reliable.

Lockheed’s Atlas 5 does away with such trappings as the launch tower and the button and can be rolled out to a nearly bare pad just 12 hours before launch. By comparison, the Atlas 2AS had spent about three months on the pad in preparation for its flight.

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