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

Surprise! NASA Gets Two ‘Free’ Hubble-like Space Telescopes

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NASA will be getting two unused space surveillance satellites from the US’s National Reconnaissance Office, which could possibly be used to search for dark energy. In articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times, NASA and NRO officials revealed the two unused and not-fully-built satellites are available for NASA to use as they see fit. While the satellites don’t have astronomical instruments and are still in a warehouse, they do have 2.4-meter (7.9 feet) mirrors, just like Hubble, with a wider field of view and a maneuverable secondary mirror that makes it possible to obtain better-focused images.

“This is a total game changer,” said David N. Spergel of Princeton, quoted in the New York Times, who is co-chairman of a committee on astronomy and astrophysics for the National Academy of Sciences.

Reportedly, the NRO contacted NASA in 2011 about the two spy satellites. Since taking over as head of the NASA Science Directorate early this year, former Hubble repairman John Grunsfeld has been working with scientists and other NASA officials to quietly study the possibility of using the two satellites as “repurposed telescopes.”

Originally designed to look at Earth for surveillance, the two telescopes could be turned to look at the heavens instead, as the National Reconnaissance Office said they no longer needed them for spy missions. Why two such spy telescopes were under construction and then scrapped is not clear.

Described as not fully built and some parts being in “bits and pieces,” NASA will have to decide on how they should be used, build additional instruments, launch them, and support the operations.

Reportedly, Grunsfeld and his secret team have come up with a plan to turn one of the telescopes to investigate the mysterious dark energy that is speeding up the expansion of the universe.

NASA officials stressed that they do not have a program or a budget to launch even one telescope at the moment, and that at the very earliest, under favorable budgets, it would be 2020 before even one of the two gifted telescopes could be ready for a mission.

The Washington Post asked Grunsfeld whether anyone at NASA was popping champagne, and he answered, “We never pop champagne here; our budgets are too tight.”

In the latest decadal survey the astronomical community had suggested a dark energy telescope as its top priority in astronomy and astrophysics, but the lack of funding – along with huge cost overruns by the James Webb Space Telescope — made it seem like such a telescope would be an impossibility.

The two telescopes could possibly be used for the proposed WFIRST project, which seemingly was not going anywhere with the latest budget proposal or as a ‘scout’ for the JWST.

“It would be a great discovery telescope for where Webb should look in addition to doing the work on dark energy,” Spergel said in the Washington Post.

Astronomers will be discussing the possibilities at a meeting at the National Academy of Sciences held on today in Washington, D.C. and how they could turn the two gifted telescopes into official missions.

Read more in the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Spectacular Sunset Launch of new US Spy Satellite

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A Delta IV rocket carrying a top secret military payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) blasted off Friday evening (March 11) at 6:38 p.m. from Cape Canaveral at Space Launch Complex-37 in Florida.

The NROL-27 payload supports the national defense and all information about its mission and goals is a classified military secret. Some outside observers say NROL-27 may be a powerful military communications satellite for relay of vital national security data rather than a signals intelligence satellite.

See our launch photo gallery below from Alan Walters and Ken Kremer

Delta IV blast off with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. Credit: Alan Walters. awaltersphoto.com
The NRO is located in Chantilly, VA. and charged with the design, construction and operation of the US fleet of intelligence gathering reconnaissance satellites. Their goal is achieving information superiority for the U.S. Government and Armed Forces.

“This mission helps ensure that crucial NRO resources will continue to strengthen our national defense,” said Col James Ross, 45th Space Wing vice commander.

The sunset liftoff into a clear blue sky was visually stunning. With the winds whipping towards our viewing site along the NASA causeway, the roaring rocket thunder was especially loud. Upper level winds threatened to derail the launch. Liftoff was delayed by about 45 minutes due to strong wind gusts which finally calmed to fall within the launch criteria.

“This is the 50th anniversary year of the NRO. NROL-27 is the fifth of six launches for the NRO in the 2010-2011 time period and marks our most aggressive launch schedule in two decades,” said Loretta Desio, NRO spokesperson, in an interview for Universe Today at the viewing site.

Sunset blastoff of Delta IV with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. View from the NASA Causeway about 2.7 miles away. Credit: Ken Kremer. kenkremer.com
The NROL-27 satellite is named “Gryphon”.

Colors and works in the logo represent the United States Marine Corps, United States Navy, VA Tech, and fallen veterans. Logo symbols represent the United States Air Force, United States Army and two teammates killed on 9/11,” according to ULA spokesperson Chris Chavez.

The unmanned Delta IV rocket was built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) and launched by the 45th Space Wing stationed at Patrick Air Force Base. ULA is a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

“The outstanding ULA, NRO and Air Force partnership made yet another successful mission,” said Lt. Col. William Heuck, 5th Space Launch Squadron commander.

NROL-27 was bolted atop the Delta IV rocket in the Medium + (4,2) configuration with a single liquid fueled booster and two small side mounted solid rocket boosters. The Delta IV stands 62.5 meters (205 feet) tall and can launch payloads up to 13.5 tons into low-Earth orbit and 6.6 tons into toward the geosynchronous orbits used by communications satellites.

The flight entered a news blackout after the successful separation of the payload fairing at about four and one half minutes after blastoff. No further information about the satellite will be forthcoming. The 4 meter diameter composite nose cone protects the satellite during ascent through the Earth’s atmosphere.

“I am extremely proud of the entire government and contractor team who supported this launch, said Col. Alan Davis, Director of the Office of Space Launch in the National Reconnaissance Office.

The Delta IV launch occurred just six days after the Atlas V launch of the second Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-2) — the mini space shuttle on another secret mission. See my Atlas report here.

The Florida Space Coast has seen a surge of rocket launchings in the past month. The Delta IV launch is the last of three successful liftoffs in the past few weeks and follows closely on the heels of the Atlas and the final flight of Space Shuttle Discovery.

Delta IV blasts off with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. Credit: Alan Walters. awaltersphoto.com
Delta IV arcs away to orbit with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. View from the NASA Causeway about 2.7 miles away. Credit: Ken Kremer
Twin Solid rocket booster separation from Delta rocket 1st Stage occurred at T+plus 1 minute, 42 seconds. Credit: Ken Kremer
Delta IV blasts off with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. View from the NASA Causeway. Credit: Ken Kremer
Delta IV blasts off with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. View from the NASA Causeway about 2.7 miles away. Credit: Ken Kremer
Delta 4 and NROL 27 streak to space. Credit: Ken Kremer
Space Photographers in action including this author, captured at the Delta 4 launch by Spaceflight Now. Photo Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
Colorful vapor exhaust trails from Delta 4 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer
Delta IV prior to launch from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral. Credit: Alan Walters. awaltersphoto.com
Delta 4 NROL-27 mission patch.
Gryphon logo: Colors and works represent the United States Marine Corps, United States Navy, VA Tech, and fallen veterans. Logo symbols represent the United States Air Force, United States Army and two teammates killed on 9/11.
The patch may contain hidden clues about the mission