The first in a new generation of NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellites has begun a measured climb to geosynchronous orbit, following a successful launch aboard a United Space Alliance Atlas V rocket late Jan. 30 from Cape Canaveral.

The Boeing-built TDRS-K spacecraft marks the first addition in a decade to the aging, seven-spacecraft communications constellation that supports the Ka-, Ku- and S-band requirements of the International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope and a growing fleet of multi-agency Earth observations satellites.

The Atlas V 401 with its Centaur upper stage lifted off at 8:48 p.m. EST, rising from Launch Complex 41 on an easterly trajectory. Two burns of the Centaur over the first hour and 46 min. of flight achieved the intended 2,680-by-22,238-mi.-high geosynchronous transfer orbit.

“We’ve got a customer quite thrilled to have a healthy satellite on orbit,” said Tim Dunn, the NASA launch director, following the Centaur separation.

Boeing Satellite Systems, of El Segundo, Calif., will oversee 10 to 15 days of geosynchronous satellite transfer activities.

Once oversight is transferred to NASA’s TDRS ground station at White Sands, N.M., a two- to three-month test and initial operations phase will follow, with the spacecraft positioned at 149.8 deg. W. Long.

The latest addition to the 30-year-old NASA Space Network is part of a contract originally awarded by NASA to Boeing in December 2007, potentially worth $1.22 billion, for production and orbital delivery of the TDRS third-generation K, L and M and optional N spacecraft, as well as upgrades to the White Sands ground station.

NASA currently plans to launch TDRS-L in early 2014 and TDRS-M no earlier than late 2015, replenishing the constellation for the long haul, according to Jeffrey Gramling, NASA’s TDRS-K project manager.

In addition to upgraded electronics, TDRS-K features higher- performance solar panels to accommodate growing S-band requirements. Another significant design change, the return to ground-based processing of data, will allow the system to service more customers with evolving communication requirements, according to Boeing.

“The Space Network is important, not only to NASA. It’s a national asset,” said Badri Younes, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN).

The 3,500-kg (7,700-lb.) TDRS-K was designed for a 15-year lifetime.

After the acceptance period, NASA plans to reposition TDRS-K to 171 deg. W. Long. for another two to three months of initial operations with active spacecraft that will set the stage for a decision on whether to keep the new satellite active or designate it as an on orbit spare, Gramling says.

Of the 10 first- and second-generation TDRS spacecraft launched since 1983, two were retired in mid-2010 and early 2012. The second TDRS satellite, nestled aboard the shuttle Challenger, was lost when the winged ship broke apart following liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986.

The TDRS-K launch marked the 35th flight of the ULA Atlas V, and the first of 13 missions planned for 2013 by the seven-year-old Boeing/Lockheed joint venture, according to Vernon Thorp, ULA’s program manager for NASA missions.