A United Launch Alliance Delta II successfully launched the NASA Kepler spacecraft at 10:50 p.m. EST today from Space Launch Complex-17B. The launch marked the 139th successful launch in the Delta II program’s 20 year history, which began with its first launch from SLC-17 on Feb. 14, 1989, carrying a Global Positioning System satellite.

Following its nearly 62 minute flight, Kepler was deployed on its mission to search a nearby region of our galaxy for Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zone surrounding stars like our Sun. The habitable zone is the region around a star where the temperature permits water to be liquid on a planet’s surface. Liquid water is considered essential for the existence of life.

“We congratulate NASA and our mission partners on the launch of Kepler on its journey to learn more about our universe,” said Jim Sponnick, vice president, Delta Product Line. “Today’s launch was the second for NASA aboard a Delta II in just 28 days, coming on the heels of the successful NOAA-N Prime launch Feb. 6. The NASA/ULA Delta II partnership has launched many important scientific missions directly benefiting everyone here on Earth. Launching these two missions for NASA has been a wonderful way to celebrate the program’s 20th anniversary.”

During the past two decades, Delta II launched some of America’s most famous and successful missions. NASA’s Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, along with the Phoenix Mars Lander, were launched by Delta II. Additionally, NASA missions such as Mars Odyssey, Messenger, Dawn, GLAST, and THEMIS all began their journeys on a Delta II. Delta II has launched NRO missions and all current GPS satellites missions in support of national security.

Delta II has also launched 43 commercial missions, the most by any U.S. launch vehicle. Building on this success, the Delta II product line currently has 11 NASA, DoD, and commercial missions scheduled to launch through 2011.

“Our Delta II team is proud of our success record and the contributions Delta II has made to scientific exploration, national defense, and economic prosperity,” Sponnick said. “The team realizes that they didn’t do this alone. Delta II has been so successful because of tremendous support from our government mission partners, suppliers and commercial customers.”

For the Kepler mission, the spacecraft was launched on a Delta II 7925-10L configuration vehicle featuring a ULA first stage booster powered by a Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RS-27A main engine and nine Alliant Techsystems (ATK) strap-on solid rocket motors. An Aerojet AJ10-118K engine powered the second stage. The payload was encased by a 10-foot-diameter composite payload fairing.

ULA’s next launch is the March 14, U.S. Air Force Wideband Global SATCOM-2 mission aboard an Atlas V from SLC-41 here.

ULA program management, engineering, test and mission support functions are headquartered in Denver, Colo. Manufacturing, assembly and integration operations are located at Decatur, Ala., Harlingen, Texas, San Diego, Calif., and Denver, Colo. Launch operations are located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

For more information on the ULA joint venture, visit the ULA Web site at www.ulalaunch.com, or call the ULA Launch Hotline at 1-877-ULA-4321 (852-4321).