Triple Barreled Powerhouse Plows Dazzling Path to Orbit for Clandestine NRO Eavesdropper – Gallery

United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket blasts off with NROL-37 spy satellite on June 11, 2016 from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket blasts off with NROL-37 spy satellite on June 11, 2016 from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — A top secret eavesdropping satellite constructed to support America’s national defense plowed a dazzling path to orbit Saturday riding atop the immense firepower of the mightiest rocket in the world – the triple barreled Delta IV Heavy powerhouse.

Note: Story expanding with more photos/videos !!

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) soared to space under mostly sunny sunshine state skies from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on June 11 at 1:51 p.m. EDT.

Although the actual launch time was classified, liftoff of the 24 story tall monster rocket came right at the opening of the publicly announced launch window – on its ninth mission overall.

The clandestine surveillance satellite with the nondescript name NROL-37 blazed to space on over two million pounds of liftoff thrust – putting on a stunning display of one of the biggest and baddest launches in many years from the Florida Space Coast.

“We are so honored to deliver the NROL-37 payload to orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office during today’s incredible launch,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Custom Services, in a statement.

“This was the ninth time ULA launched the Delta IV Heavy, the most powerful launch vehicle in existence today.”

United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket blasts off with NROL-37 spy satellite on June 11, 2016 from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Ignition and liftoff … United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket blasts off with NROL-37 spy satellite on June 11, 2016 from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

To the eyes and ears of myself and many space journalist friends it was among the very the best and loudest blastoffs since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle orbiter fleet back it 2011.

Spectators ringing the beaches and packing the hotels along the Atlantic Ocean shore and beyond could hear the engines roar reverberating for more than 5 minutes, even after it disappeared far far way in the distant clouds.

Spectators east of the Cape and watching from more than 20 miles away told me they hear the rockets roar and feel the rumbling in their houses and apartments even after it disappeared from sight.

The 235-foot-tall rocket arced over eastwards towards the African continent on its path skywards, providing clues to its intended orbit.

Although a preplanned communications blackout was instituted by ULA and the US military some five minutes after liftoff, it is believed that the Delta IV Heavy successfully delivered NROL-37 to a geostationary orbit and an altitude of approximately 22,300 miles.

Launch of ULA Delta 4 Heavy with NROL-37 surveillance satellite on June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.   Credit: Julian Leek
Launch of ULA Delta 4 Heavy with NROL-37 surveillance satellite on June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek

Saturdays successful liftoff came 48 hours after gloomy weather related to Tropical Storm Colin in the so called ‘sunshine state’ forced a postponement for the mammoth satellite valued at over $1.5 Billion.

“The team worked together through many challenges this flow including, overcoming the aftereffects of Tropical Storm Colin,” said Maginnis.

“We are proud of the outstanding teamwork between the ULA, NRO and Air Force partners to ensure mission success for this critical national security asset.”

The most powerful rocket in existence today was required for this launch since the immense payload reportedly weighs in excess of 17,000 pounds.

Double ignition of United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy booster and birds carrying NROL 37 spysat to orbit on June 11, 2016 from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Double ignition of United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy booster and birds carrying NROL 37 spysat to orbit on June 11, 2016 from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NROL-37 is being launched for the NRO on an intelligence gathering mission in support of US national defense.

The possible roles for the reconnaissance payload include signals intelligence, eavesdropping, imaging and spectroscopic observations, early missile warnings and much more.

Reports indicate it may be one of the largest satellites ever launched, weigh some 17,000 pounds and may deploy an antenna over 300 feet wide for eavesdropping purposes.

The NRO was formed in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik and secretly created on September 6, 1961.

“The purpose is overseeing all satellite and overflight reconnaissance projects whether overt or covert. The existence of the organization is no longer classified today, but we’re still pressing to perform the functions necessary to keep American citizens safe,” according to the official NRO website.

Launch of ULA Delta 4 Heavy with NROL-37 spysat on June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.   Credit: SpaceHeadNews/Lane Hermann
Launch of ULA Delta 4 Heavy with NROL-37 spysat on June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: SpaceHeadNews/Lane Hermann

Witnessing a Delta IV Heavy rumble to orbit is a rather rare treat since they launch infrequently.

The last of these to launch from the Cape was for NASA’s inaugural test flight of the Orion crew capsule on the EFT-1 launch in Dec. 5, 2014. No other rocket was powerful enough.

Watch these spectacular launch videos from remote video cameras set at the pad:

Video Caption: NROL-37 launch on ULA Delta IV Heavy from the front pond camera location at CCAFS on June 11, 2016. Credit: Jeff Seibert

The Delta IV Heavy employs three Common Core Boosters (CBCs). Two serve as strap-on liquid rocket boosters (LRBs) to augment the first-stage CBC and 5-m-diameter payload fairing housing the payload.

Each first stage CBC is powered by an upgraded RS-68A engine generating 702,000 pounds of thrust.

The three CBCs generate a combined 2.1 million pounds of thrust fueled by cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.

A single RL10 liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine powers the Delta second stage.

The secret satellite was enclosed in a 5 meter diameter payload fairing.

Launch of ULA Delta 4 Heavy with NROL-37 surveillance satellite on June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.   Credit: Julian Leek
Launch of ULA Delta 4 Heavy with NROL-37 surveillance satellite on June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek

ULA manufactures the Delta rocket family in Decatur, Alabama. Aerojet Rocketdyne builds the booster and upper stage engines.

ULA Delta 4 Heavy rocket delivers NROL-37 spy satellite to orbit on June 11, 2016 from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
ULA Delta 4 Heavy rocket delivers NROL-37 spy satellite to orbit on June 11, 2016 from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing on site reports direct from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the SpaceX launch pad.

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Orbital ATK Cygnus, ISS, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

June 14/15: “ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SpaceX, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Riding a Fountain of Fire the Delta IV Heavy makes ‘First Contact’ with Space - after launching on June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Riding a Fountain of Fire the Delta IV Heavy makes ‘First Contact’ with Space – after launching on June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
ULA Delta 4 Heavy rides to orbit on a massive spongy looking vapor trail after blastoff with NROL-37 surveillance satellite on June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
ULA Delta 4 Heavy rides to orbit on a massive spongy looking vapor trail after blastoff with NROL-37 surveillance satellite on June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Massive vapor trail to orbit after blastoff of ULA Delta 4 Heavy with top secret NROL-37 surveillance satellite on June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Jillian Laudick
Massive vapor trail to orbit after blastoff of ULA Delta 4 Heavy with top secret NROL-37 surveillance satellite on June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Jillian Laudick
Delta rocket at dawn at launch pad 37 on launch day June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Delta rocket at dawn at launch pad 37 on launch day June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Flock of 5 pelicans fly close recon over unveiled Delta 4 Heavy rocket set to launch NROL-37 spy satellite to orbit on June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at Space Launch Complex-37.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Flock of 5 pelicans fly close recon over unveiled Delta 4 Heavy rocket set to launch NROL-37 spy satellite to orbit on June 11, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at Space Launch Complex-37. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk Sues Government to Break US Air Force’s National Security Launch Monopoly

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announces lawsuit protesting Air Force launch contracts while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on April 25, 2014
Story updated[/caption]

Elon Musk, CEO and founder of the upstart commercial launch venture SpaceX, announced at a press conference today, Friday, April 25, that SpaceX is filing suit against the Federal Government to protest and break the US Air Force’s awarding of lucrative launch contracts for high priority national security satellites to a sole rocket provider – United Launch Alliance (ULA) – on a non competitive basis.

The gloves are officially off in the intensely mounting duel over multibillion dollar Air Force military launch contracts between SpaceX and ULA.

“The official protest document will be available Monday, April 28th at www.freedomtolaunch.com and will be filed with the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C.,” said SpaceX in an official statement.

Musk said the Air Force launch contract with ULA amounted to a continuing monopoly, was unfair by blocking SpaceX from competing for launches of surveillance satellites and would cost taxpayers billions of extra dollars in coming years.

“What we feel is that this is not right – that the national security launches should be put up for competition and they should not be awarded on a sole source, uncompeted basis,” said Musk at the briefing called on short notice and held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

SpaceX is suing the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is suing the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The latest Air Force launch contract dated to December 2013 guarantees the “block buy” purchase of 36 rocket cores from ULA for national security launches for the DOD, NRO and other government agencies, at a significantly reduced cost compared to earlier contracts.

A further 14 cores were to be awarded on a competitive basis, including bids from SpaceX and others who seek to gain Air Force certification. Several of those launch awards have now been deferred indefinitely.

ULA is a joint venture between aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, formed in 2006, that has launched over 80 satellites to orbit and beyond including many NASA science and mission probes like Orion EFT-1, Curiosity, MAVEN, TDRS and more.

It manufactures the Delta IV and Atlas V unmanned, expendable rocket families that are currently the only boosters certified to launch the high value military payloads at issue in the lawsuit announced on Friday by Musk.

The newest versions of the Delta and Atlas rockets – known as EELV’s (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles) have had nearly flawless records of success since being introduced some dozen years ago by the companies individually, before the ULA merger.

Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Musk wants his company’s newer and he says much cheaper Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to be certified by the Air Force and included in the competition for launch contracts.

To date the Falcon 9 has launched only 9 times. Only four of those were in the new and more powerful configuration needed by the Air Force.

Musk is not asking that the launches be awarded outright to SpaceX. But he does want the Air Force contract cancelled and re-competed.

“We’re just protesting and saying that the launches should be competed,” Musk said.

“If we compete and lose that’s fine. But why were they not even competed? That just doesn’t make sense.”

“So far we are most of the way through the certification process. And so far there have been zero changes to the rocket. Mostly it’s just been a paperwork exercise.”

“Since this is a large multiyear contract, why not wait a few months for the certification process to complete. And then do the competition. That seems very reasonable to me.”

Musk said it costs four times more to launch ULA’s Delta or Atlas rocket vs. a SpaceX Falcon rocket.

“The ULA rockets are basically four times more expensive than ours. So this contract is costing US taxpayers billions of dollars for no reason.”

“Each launch by ULA costs American taxpayers roughly $400 million per launch. They are insanely expensive. I don’t know why they are so expensive.”

The Falcon 9 lists for about $60 Million per launch, but rises to about $100 million after the certification costs are included, Musk explained.

“So yes the certification does make our Falcon 9 rocket more expensive. But not 400% more expensive.”

“Our rockets are 21st century design,” said Musk to obtain the most efficiency. He said ULA’s designs date back to the 90s and earlier with heritage hardware.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec 3, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec 3, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

To date the Falcon 9 has already been used three times under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to launch the private SpaceX Dragon resupply vessel to the International Space Station (ISS) – most recently a week ago during the April 18 blastoff of the SpaceX CRS-3 mission from Cape Canaveral.

It is also being used to launch highly expensive communications satellites like SES-8 and Thaicom-6 for private companies to geostationary orbits.

“It just seems odd that if our vehicle is good enough for NASA and supporting a $100 billion space station, and it’s good enough for launching NASA science satellites, for launching complex commercial geostationary satellites, then there’s no reasonable basis for it not being capable of launching something quite simple like a GPS satellite,” said Musk.

“Our only option is to file a protest.”

Furthermore as I wrote here in a prior article, US National Security launches are now potentially at risk due to the ongoing crisis between Russian, Ukraine and Crimea because the RD-180 first stage engines powering the Atlas V are designed and manufactured in Russia by NPO Energomash, majority owned by the Russian Federation.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announces lawsuit protesting Air Force launch contracts while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on April 25, 2014.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announces lawsuit protesting Air Force launch contracts while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on April 25, 2014

“The head of the Russian space sector, Dmitry Rogozin, was sanctioned by the White House in March 2014 in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” says SpaceX.

The RD-180 engine supply could be cut off in a worst case scenario if economic sanctions against Russia are increased by the Western allies.

ULA has a two year contingency supply of the RD-180’s and blueprints to begin production, if needed.

However in the event of a cutoff, it would take at least three to five years to start and certify RD-180 engine production somewhere in the US, a ULA spokesperson told me recently at Cape Canaveral.

This possibly leaves a 1 to 3 year gap with no Atlas V 1st stage engine supply.

The Delta IV rockets and engines by contrast are manufactured in the US.

“In light of international events, this seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin,” said Musk.

“Yet, this is what the Air Force’s arrangement with ULA does, despite the fact that there are domestic alternatives available that do not rely on components from countries that pose a national security risk.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Hush, Hush US Spy Satellite Blasts Off atop Milestone Atlas Rocket

Image Caption: Spy Satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office blasts off atop Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 8:28 a.m. EDT. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com

A top secret US national security Spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) roared mightily to space this morning (June 20) through picturesque layers of broken clouds an Atlas V rocket at 8:28 a.m. EDT (1228 GMT) from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

Basically nothing is publicly known about the specifications or mission of the vital payload, dubbed NROL-38, launched in support of America’s national defense.

The classified mission entered a total news blackout and cutoff of the live webcast some five minutes after launch when the rocket’s first stage and upper stage engine separated successfully and before the secret satellite was deployed and reached orbit.

The flight marked a key milestone as the 50th successful launch of the combined Atlas V and Delta IV booster families collectively known as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) built by United Launch Alliance (ULA). The maiden launch took place in 2002.

Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite soars to space on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 8:28 a.m. EDT on Jun 20, 2012. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com

ULA was formed in 2006 as a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin who were originally in competition at the start of the EELV program.

“This morning’s flawless launch is the product of many months of hard work and collaboration of government and industry teams. We hit it out of the park again as we continue to deliver superior vigilance from above for the Nation,” remarked Col James D. Fisher, Director of Office of Space Launch.

Threatening clouds and gusting winds remained within acceptable levels and did not delay the launch.

The 19 story Atlas booster first stage was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL10A-4 engine.


Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite liftoff on June 20, 2012 atop Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

“Congratulations to the NRO and to all the mission partners involved in this critical national security launch,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Mission Operations. “This launch marks an important milestone as we celebrate the 50th successful Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) mission, with 31 Atlas V and 19 Delta IV missions flown since August 2002.”

The NROL-38 spy satellite is the first of three critical NRO missions slated for launch by ULA over the next two months. The NRO is based in Chantilly, Va. and the U.S. Government agency responsible for designing, building, launching, and maintaining America’s intelligence satellites.

Indeed the next NRO satellite is currently scheduled for blastoff in the early morning hours of June 28 atop a Delta 4 Heavy booster rocket, now the most powerful rocket in the US arsenal following the forced retirement of NASA’s trio of Space Shuttle orbiters and which will surely put on a spectacular sky show !

The likewise classified NROL-15 mission will lift off next Thursday from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral.



Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite liftoff on June 20, 2012 atop Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

The EELV Program was developed by the United States Air Force to provide assured access to space for Department of Defense and other government payloads, achieve significant cost savings and reliably meet launch schedule targets as older booster such as the Titan were phased out.

“Twelve of the 50 EELV launches have been NRO missions and these have been vital to our overall mission of delivering on commitments critical to our national security,” said Bruce Carlson, director, National Reconnaissance Office. “I thank and congratulate ULA and the EELV program for the tremendous performance and achievement of this very impressive and noteworthy milestone.”


Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite atop Atlas V rocket pierces cloud layers after liftoff on June 20, 2012. Credit: Ken Kremer

ULA will be getting some competition. SpaceX Corporation – which recently dispatched the first private spacecraft (Dragon) to dock at the ISS – will compete in the bidding to launch future US national security payloads.

Ken Kremer