Top Secret: What Did That Delta IV Heavy Take into Space?

[/caption]On Saturday, very little was known about the mammoth payload a Delta IV Heavy was carrying into space. Launching from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the 70 metre-high rocket blasted into the atmosphere with a mystery satellite known only as the NROL-26 mission. As the acronym suggests, the mission was carrying a National Reconnaissance Office satellite. However, a little after T+7 minutes 40 seconds, shortly after the second stage engines had fired, a media blackout prevented the world from knowing where the payload was going.

Four days on from this secretive rocket launch, what do we know about NROL-26?

The Delta IV Heavy is part of Boeing’s Integrated Defense Systems division Delta IV rocket family. This monster of a launch vehicle can deliver 1.9 million pounds of thrust, carrying large payloads to geosynchronous orbit, some 22,300 miles (36,000 km) above the Earth’s surface. The Delta IV was designed with military and commercial payloads in mind.

Watching the video of Saturday’s launch, one cant help but be in awe of this rocket system. The Delta IV Heavy carried out its second fully successful flight on that day (the Delta IV Heavy first demonstration flight failed to reach the correct orbit in 2004), placing the most expensive (and most clandestine) military spacecraft into orbit. Naturally, details are rather sketchy about what the spacecraft actually is and what it is going to do, but some estimates put the total cost of the rocket plus payload at over $2 billion, so it is obviously a very important mission.

Once NROL-26 successfully reached its destination (wherever that may be), the satellite was renamed “USA 202”. We can say with some certainty that USA 202 is an advanced spy satellite of some description. According to one source, the intent of USA 202 is to act as the next generation in orbital eavesdropping technology, deploying an antenna possibly as wide as 350 feet.

According to GlobalSecurity.org (a military think-tank), USA 202 could be of an “Advanced Mentor” design. Older versions are believed to have been launched by the National Reconnaissance Office and the Central Intelligence Agency under the code name “MENTOR” from 1995 to 2003. These satellites, in geostationary orbits, collect ground-based radio emissions using very large antennae (some as wide as 100 metres). They are also thought to be very big satellites, weighing in at over five tonnes. Like USA 202, these older satellites are highly classified and there is no official word confirming or denying any of the specifications.

Last weekend’s successful Delta IV Heavy launch will come as a relief to the security services operating the top secret satellite as launches have fallen behind schedule through failures and technical challenges. These spy satellites are critical to the White House and Pentagon, as the information gathered by USA 202 aid military decisions and shape foreign policy. In this case, it is thought Saturday’s Delta IV Heavy launch will enhance the ability to intercept communications from rogue states and terrorist organizations around the planet.

Let’s hope USA 202 remains operational for its designated lifespan, as we know what happens to spy satellites that don’t behave

Sources: Space Flight Now, Space.com, Boeing, Florida Everyone Forgot,

23 Replies to “Top Secret: What Did That Delta IV Heavy Take into Space?”

  1. Awesome. I love contemplating this sort of tech. The fact that is top secret only adds to the intrigue…

  2. I find it hard to believe that a media blackout will prevent people who really want to follow the launch from following it. Delta IVs are rather hard to miss, after all.

  3. Maybe they are sending weapons to the wood-eating Mars Bigfoots to fight the giant alien like creatures that are on Planet X.

    Cha-ching!!

  4. A few years back, I was a 911 operator just south of the Space Coast.

    In the middle of the night, one of the deputies (who knew I was a space nerd) keyed up on the radio and said, “Hey, dispatch, the Cape’s launching one if you can get outside to look.”
    (We were in an underground bunker.)

    Well, I didn’t have a relief at the time, so I stayed put, but less than a minute later, he said, “Dispatch, call the Cape and see what they just lost.”

    He called on the phone to report that the rocket had gone up, up, then suddenly starting making loop-de-loops and then disappeared from his view, below the treeline. He said he was concerned because a bright sort of sheen hung in the air for a while. (That’s how he described it.)

    My supervisor called the Cape. “Hey, we’re calling about the launch failure…”
    And do you know what they said?
    “What launch failure? We didn’t launch anything.”
    She said, “Sure you did. We saw it.”
    They insisted that we were wrong.

    Finally, about 5 hours later, my shift ended.
    I had sort of forgotten about The Launch That Wasn’t until I got outside and looked up in the morning sky.

    There, still visible, were the faint smoke trails and rainbow sheen loop-de-loops.
    (Sorry, that’s the best way I know how to describe it.)

    So even though it’s clearly visible when they launch something, they don’t necessarily have to *admit* it.
    I was kind of surprised at the transparency of this particular launch, considering how things used to be.

  5. Hmm 350 foot antenna claim you? Wouldnt that be pretty obvious from the ground? We can see details on the ISS and shuttle from 10 inch reflectors, I bet those guys would see this as a large circle in the sky. Any records of that?

    Sad to think how many hubble telescopes have been used to only look downward towards the earth.

  6. I’ve seen rocket launches from the air force base not far from my home before. No media attention whatsoever.

    The air force has also distributed aluminum flakes in the air, testing a radar jamming system. It works; even the local TV weather radar picked up a huge blob that drifted away after a few hours. The air force was apparently open about it, as they knew it would be impossible to hide.

    Fun stuff!

  7. Conic wonders
    “Hmm 350 foot antenna claim you? Wouldnt that be pretty obvious from the ground? We can see details on the ISS and shuttle from 10 inch reflectors…”

    Those “Mentor” spy satellites go into geostationary orbit, almost one tenth the distance out to the Moon – or between 120 and 150 times further away than the zone in which the ISS hangs out. I doubt you’d be able to see it as anything more than a dot of light just before dawn or after dusk.

  8. @ Conic:

    Very true. Though some people think that there’s a plan in the works to annihilate everyone on Earth because of missle satellites in orbit pointed toward the planet and not away from it. Well yeah, they have to be pointed down in order to intercept ICBMs if launched. As far as watching what people do goes, I don’t doubt it one bit.

  9. If they’re willing to spend what they spend on a slowly but surely dying Hubbel, imagine what they’re pumping into satellites pointed at the Earth for “security” reasons.

  10. LLDIAZ Says: I would bet anything they spend more on looking at us then on looking at the stars.

    At “us”?
    Of whom the feck are you talking about?

  11. Feenixx: (I am also conic)

    You say geosync… but I was under the impression that most of these sats. orbit in high apogee orbits that also take them close to the earth… this way they raster over the whole earth over a day or so.

    I found some nice info about these, im glad to know more than I did this morning on the subject. The defense think tank has a nice page all about the antenna technology used.

  12. It’s clearly a new supervision sat designed to identify those pesky nude sunbathers and protect the moral standards that we all hold so dear.

  13. “Clandestine? I’m surprised they publicized the launch, let alone a video of it.”

    It’s like launching a submarine. You may not know what it can do, or what’s inside it, but it’s almost as impossible to hide, and silly to pretend you can. And wether a Delta IV or an attack submarine, what it looks like from the outside is no secret (well, except maybe for a sub’s propeller design…)

    And in either case, you may well *want* your adversaries to know that you do indeed have one more satellite/submarine/other system for them to think about, and take a big fat guess as to its capabilites.

  14. 2 thousand million? Well, no surprise youi have to cut Nasa in order to balance the budget. Makes perfect sense.

  15. Just a small correction: Delta IV rockets are no longer under the control of the Boeing Integrated Defense systems. Since December 2006, the Delta program has been taken over by United Launch Alliance. ULA publicizes all of their launches. It would be stupid not to do so. All of a sudden a big ass rocket goes up without anybody knowing about it. You can see and hear that from miles away. It wouldn’t be a secret for long.

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