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

………….

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

Surveillance Satellite Set for June 9 Launch on Mighty Delta 4 Heavy

Sun rises behind Delta 4 Heavy launch of  NROL-15 for the NRO on June 29, 2012 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at Space Launch Complex-37.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Sun rises behind Delta 4 Heavy launch of NROL-15 for the NRO on June 29, 2012 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at Space Launch Complex-37. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL — A classified surveillance satellite set to fortify the reconnaissance capabilities of America’s spy masters is now scheduled to launch this Thursday afternoon, June 9, atop America’s most powerful rocket – the Delta 4 Heavy.

Lift off of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta 4 Heavy carrying the classified NROL-37 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) on Thursday, June 9 is slated for 1:59 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

This follows a four day delay from June 5 to deal with a last minute and unspecified payload issue.

“Spacecraft, rocket and support systems are ready!” tweeted the NRO.

Although almost everything about the clandestine payload, its mission, purpose and goals are classified top secret, it is certainly vital to America’s national security.

We do know that NROL-37 will be 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.

The NRO runs a vast fleet of powerful orbital assets hosting a multitude of the most advanced, wide ranging and top secret capabilities.

The payload is named NROL-37 and will be carried to an undisclosed orbit, possibly geostationary, by the triple barreled ULA Delta 4 Heavy rocket – currently the largest and most powerful rocket in the world.

It is manufactured and launched by ULA as part of the Delta rocket family. This includes the Delta 4 Medium which can launch with strap on solid rocket boosters. ULA also builds and launches the Atlas V rocket family.

Delta 4 Heavy cutaway diagram. Credit: ULA
Delta 4 Heavy cutaway diagram. Credit: ULA

To date nine NRO payloads have flown on Delta 4 rockets. NROL-37 will be the 32nd Delta IV mission since the vehicle’s inaugural launch.

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.

Precisely because this is a launch of the mighty triple barreled Delta 4 Heavy, the view all around is sure to be spectacular and is highly recommended – in case you are in the Florida Space Coast area or surrounding regions.

One thing for sure is the top secret payload is huge and weighty since it requires the heaviest of the heavies to blast off.

Watch this ULA video showing the mating of the classified reconnaissance payload to the rocket.

Video Caption: The NROL-37 payload is mated to a Delta IV Heavy rocket inside the Mobile Service Tower or MST at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-37. Credit: ULA

Another unclassified aspect we know about this flight is that the weather forecast is rather iffy.

The official Air Forces prognosis calls for only a 40% chance of favorable weather conditions.

The primary concerns are for Anvil Clouds, Cumulus Clouds and Lightning.

In case of a scrub for any reason related to technical or weather issues, the next launch opportunity is 48 hours later on Saturday. June 11.

The weather odds rise significantly to an 80% chance of favorable weather conditions on June 11.

Somewhat surprisingly ULA has just announced the launch time – which is planned for 1:59 p.m. EDT (1759 GMT).

And you can even watch a ULA broadcast which starts 20 minutes prior to the given launch time at 1:39 p.m. EDT.

Webcast link: http://bit.ly/div_nrol37

The June 9 launch of the ULA Delta 4 Heavy carrying the classified NROL-37 spy satellite is planned for 1:59 p.m.  EDT.  Broadcast starts at 1:39 p.m. EDT  Watch the live webcast:  http://bit.ly/div_nrol37
The June 9 launch of the ULA Delta 4 Heavy carrying the classified NROL-37 spy satellite is planned for 1:59 p.m. EDT. Broadcast starts at 1:39 p.m. EDT Watch the live webcast: http://bit.ly/div_nrol37

Since this is a national security launch, the exact launch time is actually classified and could easily occur later than 1:59 p.m.

The launch period extends until 6:30 p.m. EDT (2230 GMT). The actual launch window is also classified and somewhere within the launch period.

Seeing a Delta 4 Heavy soar to space is a 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.

Inaugural Orion crew module launches at 7:05 a.m. on Delta 4 Heavy Booster from pad 37 at Cape Canaveral on Dec. 5, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Inaugural Orion crew module launches at 7:05 a.m. on Delta 4 Heavy Booster from pad 37 at Cape Canaveral on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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.

Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37. 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

………….

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 8/9: “SpaceX, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Genesis of ULA’s New Vulcan Rocket Borne of Fierce Commercial and Political Pressures: Interview

Fierce commercial and international political pressures have forced the rapid development of the new Vulcan launcher family recently announced by rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA). Vulcan’s “genesis” and development was borne of multiple unrelenting forces on ULA and is now absolutely essential and critical for its “transformation and survival in a competitive environment” moving forward, according to Dr. George Sowers, ULA Vice President for Advanced Concepts and Technology, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

“To be successful and survive ULA needs to transform to be more of a competitive company in a competitive environment,” Dr. Sowers told Universe Today in a wide ranging interview regarding the rationale and goals of the Vulcan rocket.

Vulcan is ULA’s next generation rocket to space and slated for an inaugural liftoff in 2019.

Faced with the combined challenges of a completely changed business and political environment emanating powerfully from new space upstart SpaceX offering significantly reduced launch costs, and continuing uncertainty over the future supply of the Russian-made RD-180 workhorse rocket engines that power ULA’s venerable Atlas V rocket, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Sowers and ULA’s new CEO Tory Bruno were tasked with rapidly resolving these twin threats to the firms future well being – which also significantly impacts directly on America’s national security.

“Our current plan is to have the new Vulcan rocket flying by 2019,” Sowers stated.

Whereas ULA enjoyed a virtual US launch monopoly for many years, those days are now history thanks to SpaceX.

Vulcan - United Launch Alliance (ULA)’s next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019.  Credit: ULA
Vulcan – United Launch Alliance (ULA) next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019. Credit: ULA

The Vulcan launcher was created in response to the commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and it will combine the best features of ULA’s existing unmanned Atlas V and Delta IV booster product lines as well as being revamped with new and innovative American-made first stage engines that will eventually be reusable.

It will meet and exceed the capabilities of ULA’s current stable of launchers, including the Delta IV Heavy which recently launched NASA’s maiden Orion crew module on an unmanned test flight in Dec. 2014.

“We at ULA were faced with how do we take our existing products and transform them into a single fleet that enables us to do the entire range of missions on just one family of rockets.”

“So that was really the genesis of what we now call the “Vulcan” rocket. So this single family will be able to do everything [from medium to heavy lift],” Sowers told me.

Another requirement is that Vulcan’s manufacturing methodology be extremely efficient, slashing costs to make it cost competitive with the Space X Falcon 9. Sowers said the launcher would sell “for less than $100 million” at the base level.

“Vulcan will be the highest-performing, most cost-efficient rocket on the market. It will open up new opportunities for the nation’s use of space,” says ULA CEO Tory Bruno.

In its initial configuration Vulcan’s first stage will be powered by a revolutionary new class of cost effective and wholly domestic engines dubbed the BE-4, produced by Blue Origin.

It can be augmented by up to six solid rocket boosters, to propel high value payloads on missions ranging from low Earth orbit to interplanetary destinations for NASA, private industry and vital US national security interests.

Vulcan will also blast off with astronaut crews aboard the Boeing CST-100 space taxi bound for the International Space Station (ISS) in the early 2020s.

Cutaway diagram of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket powered by BE-4 first stage engines, six solid rocket motors and a 5 meter diameter payload fairing. Credit ULA
Cutaway diagram of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket powered by BE-4 first stage engines, six solid rocket motors and a 5 meter diameter payload fairing. Credit ULA

Further upgrades including a powerful new upper stage called ACES, will be phased in down the road as launches of ULA’s existing rocket families wind down, to alleviate any schedule slips.

“Because rocket design is hard and the rocket business is tough we are planning an overlap period between our existing rockets and the new Vulcan rocket,” Sowers explained. “That will account for any delays in development and other issues in the transition process to the new rocket.”

ULA was formed in 2006 as a 50:50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that combined their existing expendable rocket fleet families – the Atlas V and Delta IV – under one roof.

Development of the two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV’s) was originally funded by the U.S. Air Force to provide two independent and complimentary launch capabilities thereby offering assured access to space for America’s most critical military reconnaissance satellites gathering intelligence for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), DOD and the most senior US military and government leaders.

Since 2006, SpaceX (founded by billionaire Elon Musk) has emerged on the space scene as a potent rival offering significantly lower cost launches compared to ULA and other launch providers in the US and overseas – and captured a significant and growing share of the international launch market for its American-made Falcon rocket family.

And last year to top that all off, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of space and defense industries, threatened to “ban Washington from using Russian-made [RD-180] rocket engines [used in the Atlas V rocket], which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, March 12, 2015, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ULA Atlas V rocket first stage is powered by Russian-made RD-180 engines.
United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, March 12, 2015, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

“ULA was formed eight years ago as a government regulated monopoly focused on US government launches. Now eight years later the environment is changing,” Sowers told me.

How did ULA respond to the commercial and political challenges and transform?

“So there are a lot of things we had to do structurally to make that transformation. One of the key ones is that when ULA was formed, the government was very concerned about having assured access to space for national security launches,” Sowers explained.

“In their mind that meant having two independent rocket systems that could essentially do the same jobs. So we have both the Atlas V and the Delta IV. But in a competitive environment you can well imagine that that requirement drives your costs significantly higher than they need to be.”

ULA actually offered three rocket families after the merger, when only one was really needed.

“So our first conclusion on how to be competitive was how do we go from supporting three rocket families – including the Delta II – off of 6 launch pads, to our ultimate aim of getting down to just 1 rocket family of off just 2 pads – one on each coast. So, that is the most cost effective structure that we could come up with and the most competitive.”

Developing a new first stage engine not subject to international tensions was another primary impetus.

“The other big objective that was always in our minds, but that became much higher priority in April 2014 when Russia decided to annex Crimea, is that the RD-180 rocket engine that became our workhorse on Atlas, now became politically untenable.”

“So the other main objective of Vulcan is to re-engine [the first stage of] our fleet with an American engine, the Blue Origin BE-4.”

The RD-180’s will be replaced with a pair of BE-4 engines from Blue Origin, the highly secretive aerospace firm founded by Jeff Bezos, billionaire founder of Amazon. The revolutionary BE-4 engines are fueled by liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen and will produce about 1.1 million pounds of thrust vs. about 900,000 pounds of thrust for the RD-180, a significant enhancement in thrust.

“The Blue Origin BE-4 is the primary engine [for Vulcan]. ULA is co-investing with Blue Origin in that engine.”

Although the BE-4 is ULA’s primary choice to replace the RD-180, ULA is also investing in development of a backup engine, the AR-1 from Aerojet-Rocketdyne, in case the BE-4 faces unexpected delays.

“As I said, rocket development is hard and risky. So we have a backup plan. That is with Aerojet-Rocketdyne and their AR-1. And we are investing in that engine as well.”

More on the Vulcan, BE-4, reusability and more upcoming in part 2.

ULA concept for SMART reuse capability for the new Vulcan rocket involves eventual midair recovery and reuse of the first stage engines.  Credit: ULA
ULA concept for SMART reuse capability for the new Vulcan rocket involves eventual midair recovery and reuse of the first stage engines. Credit: ULA

Meanwhile, the next commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 is due to blastoff this Sunday, June 28, on the Dragon CRS-7 resupply mission to the ISS.

Watch for my onsite reports from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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

Ken Kremer
………….

Learn more about ULA, SpaceX, Europa, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Jun 25-28: “SpaceX launch, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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
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
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
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
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
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
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

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

Super Secret Spy Satellite Soars Spectacularly to Space aboard Atlas V booster from Cape Canaveral – Launch Gallery

Blastoff of the Atlas V rocket with the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
Launch gallery expanded and updated – with timelapse ![/caption]

A super secret US spy satellite soared spectacularly to space this afternoon from Cape Canaveral atop a very powerful version of the Atlas V rocket on a classified flight for the National Reconnaissance Office.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V carrying the NROL-67 intelligence gathering satellite on a US national security mission for the NRO lifted off from Space Launch Complex-41 ignited its engines precisely on the targeted time on April 10 at 1:45 p.m. EDT into brilliant blue Florida skies on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

This mighty version of the 191 ft (58 m) tall Atlas V whose thrust was augmented with four strap on solid rocket motors has only been used once before – to loft NASA’s Curiosity rover to the Red Planet back in November 2011.

Atlas V NROL-67 launch photographed by iPhone from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014 while swimming. Credit: Nicole Solomon
Atlas V NROL-67 launch photographed by iPhone from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014 while swimming with the Florida fish. Credit: Nicole Solomon

Today’s Atlas V launch, as well as another for SpaceX/NASA, was postponed over two weeks ago from March 25 & 30 amidst final launch preparations when an electrical short completely knocked out use of the US Air Force’s crucial tracking radar that is mandatory to insure public safety for all launches on the Eastern Range.

Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/WiredforSpace
Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/Wired4space.com

Nothing is publicly known about the NROL surveillance satellite, its capabilities, orbit or mission or goals.

Due to the covert nature of this mission, the flight entered the now standard total news blackout and the TV transmission ceased barely five minutes after liftoff.

The successful blastoff follows closely on the heels of another Atlas V launch just seven days ago.

On April 3, ULA launched a less powerful version of the Atlas V carrying an Air Force weather satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Blastoff of the Atlas V rocket with the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.     Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
Blastoff of the Atlas V rocket with the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
Clear of the catenary lightning wires the Atlas 5-541 booster with its NROL-67 payload roar to orbit on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: nasatech.net
Clear of the catenary lightning wires the Atlas 5-541 booster with its NROL-67 payload roar to orbit on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: nasatech.net

“We are honored to deliver this national security asset to orbit together with our customers the NRO Office of Space Launch and the Air Force,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

“Successfully launching two missions from two different coasts in just seven days is a testament to the team’s one-launch-at-a-time focus and ULA’s commitment to mission success and schedule reliability.”

Today’s liftoff involved use of the Atlas V in the 541 configuration. The NROL-67 payload was housed inside a 5-meter diameter payload fairing. And a total of four US built Aerojet Rocketdyne solid rocket motors were mounted on the first stage of the booster.

Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/WiredforSpace
Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/Wired4space.com

The Centaur upper stage which boosted NROL-67 to Earth orbit was powered by a single Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine.

The Atlas V first stage was also powered by the dual nozzle RD AMROSS RD-180 engine manufactured in Russia.

Use of the Russian designed and built RD AMROSS RD-180 engine potentially puts Atlas V launches and US National Security launches at risk, if the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea spins out of control as I have reported previously.

“ULA maintains a two year stockpile of the RD-180 engines at all times,” ULA Jessica Rye spokesperson told me recently at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The next ULA launch from the Cape is scheduled for May 15 when a Delta IV rocket will loft the GPS IIF-6 mission for the United States Air Force from Space Launch Complex-37.

Rising quickly from Pad 41 on its RD-180 and 4 SRBs, the Atlas 5-541 vehicle begins its mission to geosync orbit. Credit: nasatech.net
Rising quickly from Pad 41 on its RD-180 and 4 SRBs, the Atlas 5-541 vehicle begins its mission to geosync orbit. Credit: nasatech.net

A SpaceX Falcon 9 is slated to launch on Monday, April 14 at 4:58 p.m. EDT.

The Falcon 9 is lofting a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship and delivering some 5000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the six man space station crew – under a resupply contract with NASA.

Also packed aboard the Dragon are a pair of legs for NASA’s experimental Robonaut 2 crew member.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Atlas V NROL 67, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention, NY on April 12/13.

Ken Kremer

Startled Florida space coast sunbathers see sudden blastoff of Atlas V/NROl-67 from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014. Credit: Nicolle Solomon by iPhone
Startled Florida space coast sunbathers see sudden blastoff of Atlas V/NROl-67 from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014. Credit: Nicole Solomon by iPhone
Timelapse of Atlas V/NROL-67 blastoff on April 10, 2014. Credit: Chuck Higgins
Timelapse of Atlas V/NROL-67 blastoff on April 10, 2014. Credit: Chuck Higgins
April 10, 2014 blastoff of Atlas V rocket with super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.     Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
April 10, 2014 blastoff of Atlas V rocket with super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. 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
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. The Atlas V launched on April 10, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Atlas V Roars to Space with Sophisticated New Missile Warning Surveillance Satellite

[/caption]CAPE CANAVERAL – An Atlas V rocket carrying a highly sophisticated Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO-1 satellite for the United States Air Force lifted off from the seaside Space Launch Complex-41 at 2:10 p.m. EDT on Saturday (May 7) into a gorgeous clear blue sky following a one day delay due to cloudy weather conditions surrounding the Florida space coast on Friday.

SBIRS GEO-1 is the maiden satellite in a new constellation of next generation military space probes that will provide US military forces with an early warning of missile launches that could pose a threat to US national security.

Atlas V rocket roars to space with SBIRS GEO-1 satellite Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 7, 2011.
Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com
“Today, we launched the next generation missile warning capability. It’s taken a lot of hard work by the government-industry team and we couldn’t be more proud. We look forward to this satellite providing superb capabilities for many years to come,” said General Gen. William Shelton, Air Force Space Command commander in a statement.

The planned quartet of SBIRS satellites will deliver a quantum leap in infrared event detection and reporting compared to the current generation of orbiting Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites, according to Michael Friedman of Lockheed Martin in an interview with Universe Today at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

“The SBIRS GEO satellites will have both a scanning and starring sensor with faster revisit rates. They will be able to detect missile launches from the earliest stages of the boost phase and track the missiles to determine their trajectory and potential impact points,” said Friedman.

“SBIRS can see targets quicker and characterize the actual missile,’” explained Steve Tatum of Lockheed Martin at KSC.

In addition to providing improved and persistent missile warning capabilities in a global arena, SBIRS will simultaneously support missile defense, technical intelligence, battlespace awareness and defense of the US homeland.

“The 10,000 pound SBIRS GEO-1 satellite is the size of two Hummers. About 9000 people in 23 states were involved in constructing the satellite.”

“SBIRS GEO-2 will launch in the next year or two,” Friedman told me.

“GEO-2 is built and undergoing testing now,” added Tatum.

The $1.2 Billion SBIRS satellite was launched into a 22,000 mile high Geosynchronous orbit by the 189 foot tall Atlas V rocket. The Atlas rocket was in the 401 vehicle configuration with no solid rocket motors and includes a 4-meter diameter payload fairing.

The first stage was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL-10A engine.

SBIRS GEO-1 satellite bolted atop Atlas V Centaur rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 prior to launch. SBIRS is housed inside a 4 meter diameter Payload Fairing. Credit: Ken Kremer

The Atlas V rocket was built and launched by United Launch Alliance (ULA). This marks the 50th successful launch for ULA since the company was formed in December 2006.

“With this launch, ULA continues to demonstrate its commitment to 100 percent mission success,” said Michael Gass, ULA President and CEO. “This milestone is a testament to the dedicated employees that for every mission deliver excellence, best value and continuous improvement to our customers.”

Read my Atlas V SBIRS preview story here:
Atlas Rocket Poised for Blast Off with Advanced Missile Early Warning Spy Satellite

SBIRS GEO-1 Launch Photo Album by the Universe Today team of Ken Kremer and Alan Walters:

Atlas V rocket and bird soar skywards at Florida Space Coast
Liftoff of Atlas V rocket with SBIRS GEO-1 satellite as an Egret flies into camera field of view on May 7, 2011 at 2:10 p.m. EDT. View from the Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center:
Credit: Ken Kremer -- kenkremer.com
Atlas V rocket soars off pad 41 with SBIRS GEO-1 satellite for the US Air Force as another bird flies into camera field of view on May 7, 2011 at 2:10 p.m. EDT. View from the Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center: Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlas V SBIRS GEO-1 launch from Cape Canaveral on May 7, 2011. Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com
Atlas V SBIRS GEO-1 launch from Cape Canaveral on May 7, 2011. Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com
Exhaust trail from Atlas V SBIRS GEO-1 launch on May 7, 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer
Ken Kremer with Atlas V rocket and SBIRS GEO-1 satellite at Launch Pad 41, prior to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Ken Kremer