WASHINGTON — The first of a new generation of NASA telecommunications relay satellites was successfully launched Jan. 30 aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

Liftoff occurred at 8:48 p.m. EST. By 10:34 p.m., the Boeing-built Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS)-K separated from the Atlas 5’s Centaur upper stage, marking completion of the first of at least three TDRS replenishment missions planned for the next several years.

TDRS-K had been penciled in for launch Jan. 29, but mission managers had to delay for a day to replace the rocket’s ordnance remote control assembly, which allows controllers to destroy the vehicle if the launch goes awry.

TDRS-K is the first of NASA’s third-generation TDRS satellites and the 11th TDRS satellite ever built. Not counting TDRS-K, which will undergo several weeks of testing, there are now six active satellites and two backups in the geosynchronous constellation, which NASA and other agencies use to communicate with spacecraft in Earth orbit.

Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, Seal Beach, Calif., is building the latest TDRS satellites for NASA under a $700 million fixed-price contract awarded in 2007. The contract called for Boeing to build TDRS-K and TDRS-L, with options for an additional two satellites. In 2011, NASA picked up a $289 million option for TDRS-M.

NASA spokesman Dewayne Washington said Jan. 29 that NASA not yet exercised an option for TDRS-N.

“NASA is conducting the annual reliability analysis of the TDRS operational fleet and TDRS-K, TDRS-L and TDRS-M to determine the fleet robustness in 2020 and beyond,” Brown wrote in a Jan. 29 email. “NASA is working to extend the TDRS-N option thru the end of fiscal year 2013 to assure the TDRS-N option can be exercised, if necessary.”

Under the terms of Boeing’s 2007 contract, the TDRS-N option expired Nov. 30.

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...