VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AP) — NASA launched a satellite late Thursday on a mission to explore a little-studied region of the sun and to better forecast space weather that can disrupt communications systems on Earth.
Unlike a traditional liftoff, the Iris satellite rode into Earth orbit on a Pegasus rocket dropped from an airplane that took off around sunset from the Vandenberg Air Force Base on California's central coast. About 100 miles off the coast and at an altitude of 39,000 feet, the airplane released the rocket, which ignited its engine for the 13-minute climb to space.
Mission controllers clapped after receiving word that Iris separated from the rocket as planned, ready to begin its two-year mission.
"We're thrilled," NASA launch director Tim Dunn said in a NASA TV interview.
The launch went smoothly, but there were some tense moments when communications signals were temporarily lost. Ground controllers were able to track Iris by relying on other satellites orbiting Earth. It also took longer-than-expected for Iris to unfurl its solar panels.
In a statement, NASA said it received confirmation that the satellite deployed its solar panels and was generating power.
Previous sun-observing spacecraft have yielded a wealth of information about our nearest star and beamed back brilliant pictures of solar flares.
The 7-foot-long Iris, weighing 400 pounds, carries an ultraviolet telescope that can take high-resolution images every few seconds.
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