CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- A Boeing Delta 2 lifted off from its seaside pad shortly before midnight Sunday, carrying into space the first of a new generation of Global Positioning System satellites.
The dramatic night launch was a positive milestone for the mission, which had been delayed multiple times over the past six months by technical issues. The rocket created a halo effect as it passed through thin, low clouds.
The Lockheed Martin-built satellite, dubbed GPS IIR-M, is the first in a series of eight new spacecraft designed to provide stronger signal strength, better protection against jamming and additional signals for both military and civilian users.
The mission comes on the heels of the 10th anniversary of the GPS constellation becoming fully operational in April 1995. The system includes 24 operating satellites as well as a number of spares in orbit.
One of the biggest benefits to nonmilitary users is the addition of a second civilian signal, said Air Force Col. Allan Ballenger, who oversees the GPS Program Office.
''I think this it's a pretty huge step,'' he said. ''The military has been using two frequencies from day one of GPS. This will be first time that we are adding a second frequency for civilian users.''
The second signal will provide more accuracy by compensating for ionic interference in the atmosphere. But civilians will not be able to reap all the benefits of the new system until more of the new satellites are in orbit, Ballenger said.