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Cold-War Missile Launches Cutting-Edge Military Satellite

TacSat-4 Launch Money Shot

Sept. 27, 2011: The Office of Naval Research-sponsored tactical satellite IV (TacSat-4) lifts-off from the Alaskan Aerospace Corporation's Kodiak Launch Complex aboard a Minotaur IV+ launch vehicle. (U.S. Navy / John F. Williams)

Bombs, away!

A 30-year-old  intercontinental missile designed to hurl nuclear bombs at Russia was used instead Tuesday morning to blast military communications into the future.

At 11:49 a.m. EDT, a joint military team used a Minotaur IV+ rocket -- essentially a decommissioned Peacekeeper missile built decades ago during the Cold War -- to launch the TacSat-4 satellite into orbit. The microsatellite will enable "on the move" communication, relaying calls and data directly to the handheld radios currently in use by nearly every branch of the military.

"It's an ICBM that we no longer need -- a way to get some use out of one of those old MX missiles. But rather than a warhead, it's got a satellite in the tip," Dr. Larry Schuette, director of innovation for the Navy's Office of Naval Research (ONR), told FoxNews.com.

The tiny satellite -- it weighs 990 pounds versus the industry average of about 4,300 -- blasted off from the Alaska Aerospace Corp.'s Kodiak Launch Complex, under the guidance of the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center. And it took military communication far forward.

Most troops today carry PRC-117 radios for communication, devices that rely on UHF transmissions. They relay calls and data back to a base station that's brought in and fixed in place, either set up on a hillside locally or carried overhead in a nearby plane.

The TacSat-4 (or tactical microsatellite) lets the hundreds of thousands of military handheld radios currently in use communicate directly with an antenna orbiting in the most convenient spot imaginable: all that space overhead.

"If you're a mobile force, that requires a mobile infrastructure, the best place to put that infrastructure is in space," Schuette told FoxNews.com.

In Afghanistan and other spots, mountainous terrain makes communications with hillside base stations challenging. In recent years, one special ops solider was killed trying to radio for support, his handheld unable to communicate with an nearby antenna.

 TacSat-4 might have been the difference between life and death.

"We believe a TacSat-4 constellation (4 to 5 satellites) had it been flying …. potentially could have saved his life," Lt Col Timothy Henderson, the chief of Operational Capabilities Transition for the Air Force's Operationally Responsive Space office, told FoxNews.com. 

The satellite launch was dedicated to the memory of the 30 troops killed in August when insurgents shot down a U.S. military helicopter during fighting in eastern Afghanistan -- the deadliest single loss for American forces in the decade-old war against the Taliban.

"The TacSat-4 launch is dedicated to these heroes. Their sacrifice will not be forgotten," Henderson said.

TacSat-4 Launch

TacSat-4 sounds a lot like an "ordinary" satellite phones, and it should. It's basically the same concept, although the few commercial systems that exist have never met the military's needs for security.

Satellite phones have never succeeded in the public eye either, largely due to the cost of the phones. Iridium made the biggest push for satellite communication to date, building and launching a network of 66 satellites in Nov. 1998; the company filed for bankrupt protection in 1999, defaulting on $1.5 billion in debt.

TacSat-4 will operate in a highly elliptical orbit, bringing it as close as 400 miles at points before it goes "screaming off into space," Shuette said. If TacSat-4 proves successful, a fleet of 6 to 12 of the cheap, small satellites would be required to cover anticipated areas of operation, he said.

Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.