NASA launched the last of its longtime tracking and communication satellites on Friday, a vital link to astronauts in orbit, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope. The end of the era came with a morning liftoff of TDRS-M, the 13th satellite in the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite network, the AP reports. It rode to orbit aboard an unmanned Atlas V rocket. "It's like our baby," said NASA's Badri Younes, deputy associate administrator for space communications and navigation. The rocket and satellite cost $540 million. NASA has been launching TDRS satellites since 1983. The 22,300-mile-high constellation links ground controllers with the ISS and other low-orbiting craft like Hubble. In 1998, the network even provided critical medical help to a doctor at the South Pole diagnosed with breast cancer.
Space shuttles hoisted the first-generation TDRS satellites; the second in the series was aboard Challenger's doomed flight in 1986. It was the only loss in the entire TDRS series. TDRS-M is third generation. NASA's next-generation tracking network will rely on lasers, a more advanced method of relaying data. NASA hopes to start launching these high-tech satellites by 2024 and will rely on the current network till then. It needs seven active satellites at any given time, six for real-time support and one as a spare; the newest one will remain in reserve until needed. "People have invested their soul and their sweat into making it happen" over the decades, Younes said on the eve of the launch. "This spacecraft has served us so well."