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A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket successfully launched the U.S. Navy's MUOS 3 mission. VPC

An Atlas V rocket blasted off Tuesday night from Cape Canaveral with a U.S. Navy communications satellite that will serve as a cell phone tower in the sky for U.S. forces on patrol and in combat.

The 206-foot United Launch Alliance rocket launched at 8:04 p.m., generating 2.5 million pounds of thrust to lift the roughly 15,000-pound satellite.

The mission got off to a successful start, with five solid rocket boosters -- the most powerful version of the Atlas V -- and a Russian-made booster engine performing as planned.

The rocket's Centaur upper stage also completed the first two of three burns before the Navy's third Mobile User Objective System satellite is deployed nearly three hours after liftoff.

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The spacecraft is bound for an orbit 22,300 miles over the equator, positioned above the Atlantic Ocean, where it will appear stationary in the sky.

It is the third of five satellites in a $7.2 billion Navy program that is the military's most widely used, accounting for about 60 percent of the users of military satellite communications.

The system will offer about 10 times the capacity of the Navy's older constellation, but it won't be fully operational until after the fourth satellite launches later this year.

The mission took off slightly later than its planned 7:43 p.m. launch time, at the opening of a 44-minute window. First, high-altitude winds prevented an on-time liftoff. Then the Air Force's Eastern Range needed time to resolve radio interference with the signals it would have used to destroy the rocket if it veered off course.

The launch was ULA's first of 10 planned from the Cape this year, and the 52nd by an Atlas V rocket. The company has another launch coming up Jan. 29 from California.

The next Cape launch is planned no earlier than Feb. 8, when SpaceX will try to launch a space weather and science satellite for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA.

Contact Dean at 321-242-3668 or jdean@floridatoday.com. Follow him on Twitter at @flatoday_jdean

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