Special Delivery: Modernized C-5 Airlifted AEHF Satellite


The countdown reached zero. The rocket motor lit. The Atlas V booster, tall as a twenty-story building, started to rise. Splitting the early morning darkness with a brilliant flash, a thundering roar, and riding on a column of smoke, the rocket climbed, began to accelerate, and then arced away from the launchpad.

Explosive bolts held the US Air Force’s third Advanced Extremely High Frequency, or AEHF-3, high capacity, jam-resistant, nuclear-survivable military communications satellite in place as the Atlas V gained speed and altitude.

The three solid rocket motors strapped to the rocket’s sides to provide additional thrust burned out and were jettisoned about two minutes into flight. The sixty-five foot tall, two-piece, European-built fairing covering both the satellite and the Centaur upper stage separated a minute and a half later.

The Russian-built, 860,000-pound-thrust RD-180 engine, having expended its propellant, shut down as planned a little more than four minutes after liftoff. First stage separation occurred six seconds later. The 25,000-pound-thrust Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10 engine in the rocket’s Centaur upper stage then fired for the first of two planned burns.

The first Centaur burn lasted about nine and one-half minutes, placing the satellite into a parking orbit. After coasting for about eight minutes, the engine lit up again for a five and one-half minute burn, moving the satellite into transfer orbit.

At that point, the bolts fired and the satellite separated from the Centaur and began transmitting. Getting AEHF-3 to its final geosynchronous orbit approximately 22,000 miles from Earth will take about 155 days including on-orbit testing.

From liftoff to signal acquisition, the 18 September 2013 launch of AEHF-3 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral AFS, Florida, took fifty-one minutes. But the process to move this thirty-one foot tall, 13,570-pound satellite from a clean room in California, transport it across the country, and up to space actually began in 2004.

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Check out Code One Magazine for:

  • More photos
  • Information about the AEHF system 
  • Details of the transport in a C-5M Super Galaxy
  • Interviews with the C-5M crew

November 27, 2013



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  • A C-5M Super Galaxy transported the thirty-one foot tall, 13,570-pound AEHF-3 satellite across the country from a clean room in California to the launch site in Florida.
  • The journey to deliver AEHF-3 actually began in October 2004, when this particular C-5B Galaxy was flown to Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Ga., to go through the Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program, or RERP, modification line to become a C-5M Super Galaxy.
  • The AEHF system will give the US National Security Council and unified combatant commanders the ability to control tactical and strategic forces at all levels of conflict through nuclear war.

AEHF-3 is loaded on a C-5M