Years of delay ended with an amazing sight this week along the California coast when a Delta II rocket blazed into the night sky with a NASA satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
There was "a lot of celebration in control room," said launch director Tim Dunn. A crowd that gathered at a public viewing area near the base cheered when the rocket ignited and sent a burst of light along the dark horizon (Scroll down to view image gallery).
The science behind the spectacle is an Earth-observing satellite designed to improve weather forecasts and monitor global climate. The Dodge Caravan-sized satellite joins other satellites already orbiting the planet and gathering data about the atmosphere, oceans and land.
Meteorologists can use information from the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) mission to improve forecasts. Researchers also will use the information to get a better idea of wildfire behavior and long-term climate shifts.
The satellite will "make America a more weather-ready nation," said Mary Glackin, NOAA's deputy undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere.
Problems with development of several instruments led to a delay with the launch, originally scheduled for 2006. The satellite is expected to orbit Earth for about five years.
The next scheduled launch at Vandenberg AFB, a Minuteman III rocket, is scheduled for Feb. 25.