Completely Clandestine CLIO Climbs through Clouds to Orbit on Mystery Mission

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – On a gloomy night and delayed by rain showers and thick threatening clouds to the very last moment of a two and a half launch window, the completely clandestine satellite known only as CLIO climbed slowly from a Cape Canaveral launch pad atop the thunderous flames of an Atlas V rocket on Tuesday evening on a mysterious mission to orbit.

Under a veil of secrecy for an unknown US government customer, the clouds cleared just enough to finally launch CLIO on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V booster at 8:10 p.m. EDT September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

A series of ugly thunderstorms with a deluge of rain shows repeatedly passed by the launch pad forcing a weather related delay from the initial daylight launch time of 5:44 p.m.

The 19 story rocket is protected by a quartet of lighting masts ringing the launch pad. And they did their job last night.

Mysterious CLIO payload shrouded beneath 4-meter-diameter payload fairing in this up close view of the top of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket prior to launch from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

It was touch and go with the weather at the Cape all evening. None of us knew what would happen with the satellite we know nothing about. So the weather induced hazy view of the pad fit perfectly with the mystery missions hazy motif.

Normally, even the highly secretive US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) claims ownership of their satellites named with what seems to be a random numbering scheme.

But not for CLIO. The only publicly released information is that CLIO was built by Lockheed Martin and derived from their commercial A2100 series satellite bus used for commercial telecommunications satellites among others.

“It is an honor to work with Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company and all of our mission partners to launch this very important satellite,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs, in a statement.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the CLIO mission for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company launched at 8:10 p.m. EDT September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“Today’s launch marks ULA’s 11th successful mission this year and the 88th successful mission since ULA was formed in December 2006, a true testament to the team’s focus on mission success, one launch at a time.”

Myself and other media were allowed to visit the launch pad and photograph the rocket up close with the CLIO insignia emblazoned on the payload fairing, shrouding the mysterious satellite beneath.

But even the CLIO insignia is completely nondescript, unlike the rather artistic NRO logos with cool imaginary creatures and a number like NR0-66 for example.

We do know the type of rocket utilized is an Atlas V 401 configuration vehicle, which includes a 4-meter-diameter payload fairing and no solid rocket motors.

Mysterious CLIO and Atlas V rocket prior to launch from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

We do know that the Atlas booster for this mission was powered by a Russian made RD AMROSS RD-180 engine as is customary. The Centaur upper stage was powered by a single Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine, according to ULA.

We do know the launch was successful and certainly a spectacular sight for myself and all the spectators.

Nightfall over CLIO and Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex-41 prior to weather delayed Sept. 16, 2014 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

CLIO is presumably somewhere in Earth orbit, circling overhead secretly at unknown altitude(s) and inclination(s).

CLIO marks ULA’s 60th successful mission from Cape Canaveral, the 11th successful mission this year and the 88th successful mission since the company’s formation in 2006.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Extended time exposure partial streak shot of CLIO launch on September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Photographers including Ken Kremer/Universe Today set up cameras to capture up close imagery of Sept. 16, 2014 launch of mysterious CLIO satellite and Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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