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

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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 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

Atlas V Blasts Off with Clandestine US Spy Satellite Amidst Russian Engine Controversy

An Atlas V rocket thundered to space on Thursday, May 22, carrying a clandestine surveillance satellite for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) amidst a swirling controversy regarding the boosters long term viability due to its dependence on the continued assured supply of Russian made engines.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket soared to space with a super secret payload designated NROL-33 in support of US national defense from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:09 a.m. EDT.

The launch was carried live on a ULA webcast but was deliberately cutoff after five minutes as part of a preannounced news blackout on the top secret mission.

Nothing is known about the nature of NROL-33 or its covert intelligence gathering mission.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT.  Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

The liftoff caps an impressively successful series of four high priority and high value launches by ULA that were accomplished at a rapid pace of barely seven weeks time – speaking volumes about their reliability and diligence.

And the Atlas V also marked the second successful ULA rocket launch in less than one week. It follows on the heels of last weeks blastoff of a ULA Delta IV rocket with an advanced GPS satellite for the US Air Force that benefits hundreds of millions of ordinary users worldwide.

In April, another clandestine surveillance satellite dubbed NROL-67 was also launched on an Atlas V for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

One can conclude that NROL-67 was certainly a larger and heavier payload compared to NROL-33 since the most powerful version of the Atlas V launcher was used with five strap on solid rocket motors vs. no solids for Thursday’s liftoff. NROL-67 also was housed inside the larger five-meter diameter payload fairing.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT.  Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT. Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

But the future of the venerable Atlas V – and therefore even US National Security launches like those of NROL-33 and NROL-67 – is cloudy because each first stage core is powered by a pair of Russian made RD-180 rocket engines whose future supply was cast in doubt by recent statements from Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, lawsuits by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and pointed questions from Congress.

“Moscow is banning Washington from using Russian-made rocket engines, which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit,” Rogozin said at a media briefing held on May 13.

An almost cold war like crisis in US-Russian relations began with Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea region earlier this year.

The ongoing Ukraine crisis has resulted in continuing deadly confrontations and the institution of economic sanctions against Russia and several Russian officials, including specifically Rogozin, by the US and Western European nations.

“We proceed from the fact that without guarantees that our engines are used for non-military spacecraft launches only, we won’t be able to supply them to the US,” Rogozin said.

The dual chamber, dual nozzle RD-180 engines are manufactured in Russia by NPO Energomash and has performed flawlessly to date.

Rogozin’s statements could effectively block their export to the US, thus calling into question the reliability of their continued supply for the Atlas V first stage and the ability of the US to launch critical national security payloads.

NASA is also a hefty user of the Atlas V for many of the agency’s science and communication satellites like the Curiosity Mars rover, MAVEN Mars orbiter, MMS, Juno Jupiter orbiter and TDRS.

The Atlas V is also planned as the launcher for two of the three companies – Boeing and Sierra Nevada – vying for the next round of commercial crew space taxi contracts aimed at launching US astronauts to the ISS. The commercial crew contracts will be awarded by NASA later this year.

Despite Rogozin’s threatening statements, the RD-180 export situation is not completely clear and ULA has some engines on hand to last a few years.

“ULA has a two year supply of RD-180 engines already stockpiled in the U.S.,” ULA spokesperson Jessica Rye told me.

“We currently have 16 engines in the U.S.” said Rye.

Five more RD-180 engines are due for delivery later this year.

ULA also issued this recent statement in response to Rogozins’ comments.

“ULA and our NPO Energomash supplier in Russia are not aware of any restrictions.”

Certain national security payloads can also be shifted from the Atlas V to the Delta IV.

“ULA and our Department of Defense customers have always prepared contingency plans in the event of a supply disruption. ULA has two launch vehicles that can support all of customers’ needs. We also maintain a two-year inventory of engines to enable a smooth transition to our other rocket, Delta, which has all U.S.-produced rocket engines.”

Besides Rogozin’s listing on the US economic sanctions target list, he was also named by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in his firms recent attempts to legally block the importation of the RD-180 engines by ULA for the Atlas V as a violation of the US economic sanctions.

Federal Judge Susan Braden initially imposed a temporary injunction blocking the RD-180 imports on April 30. She rescinded that order on May 8, after receiving written communications clarifications from the US Justice and Commerce departments that the engine import did not violate the US government imposed sanctions.

Here’s my earlier articles about Rogozin’s statements, Musk’s suit and more about the effects of economic sanctions imposed by the US and Western nations in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea; here, here, here and here.

ULA remains upbeat.

“Congratulations to all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch of the NROL-33 mission! The ULA team is honored to deliver another critical national security asset to orbit together with the NRO Office of Space Launch and the Air Force,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

“Today’s launch occurred six days after last week’s GPS IIF-6 launch – the second time this year that this team has launched back-to-back missions within a week. Successfully launching at this tempo is a testament to the team’s focus on mission success, one-launch-at-a-time, and continuous improvement of our launch processes.”

Watch for Ken’s articles about the ongoing Ukraine crisis with uncertain and potentially dire consequences for US National Security and NASA.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing ULA, Boeing, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket – powered by Russian made RD-180 engines – and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, in March 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket – powered by Russian made RD-180 engines – and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, in March 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Moscow Delivers Double Whammy to US Space Efforts – Bans Rocket Engines for Military Use, Won’t Prolong ISS Work

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket – powered by Russian made RD-180 engines – and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, in March 2014.
Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Story updated[/caption]

Moscow delivered a double whammy of bad news to a broad range of US space efforts today by banning the use of Russian made rocket engines for US military national security launches and by declining to prolong cooperation on the International Space Station (ISS) – says Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of space and defense industries.

Rogozin was quoted in a story prominently featured today, May 13, on the English language website of Russia Today, a Russian TV news and cultural network.

“Moscow is banning Washington from using Russian-made rocket engines, which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit,” said Rogozin according to the Russia Today report.

Virtually every aspect of the manned and unmanned US space program – including NASA, other government agencies, private aerospace company’s and crucial US national security payloads – are highly dependent on Russian & Ukrainian rocketry and are clearly at risk amidst the current Ukrainian crisis as tensions continue to escalate with deadly new clashes reported today in Ukraine – with global repercussions.

The engines at issue are the Russian made RD-180 engines – which power the first stage of the venerable Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) and are used to launch a wide array of US government satellites including top secret US military spy satellites for the US National Reconnaissance Office, like NROL-67, as well as science satellites for NASA like the Curiosity Mars rover and MAVEN Mars orbiter.

The dual nozzle RD-180 engines are manufactured in Russia by NPO Energomash. Rogozin’s statement effectively blocks their export to the US.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. Credit: RIA Novosti
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. Credit: RIA Novosti

“We proceed from the fact that without guarantees that our engines are used for non-military spacecraft launches only, we won’t be able to supply them to the US,” Rogozin said.

So although the launch of NASA science missions might preliminarily appear to be exempt, they could still be at serious risk based on a qualifier from Rogozin, pertaining to RD-180 engines already delivered.

“If such guarantees aren’t provided the Russian side will also be unable to perform routine maintenance for the engines, which have been previously delivered to the US, he added.

A ULA spokesperson told me that the company has a two year supply of RD-180 engines already stockpiled in the US.

Rogozin’s statements today are clearly in retaliation to stiffened economic sanctions imposed by the US and Western nations in response to Russia’s actions in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea; as I reported earlier here, here and here.

Therefore, US National Security spy satellite and NASA science launches are left lingering with uncertainty and potential disarray.

Rogozin is specifically named on the US economic sanctions target list.

He was also named by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in his firms attempt to block the importation of the RD-180 engines by ULA for the Atlas V as a violation of US sanctions.

Federal Judge Susan Braden initially imposed a temporary injunction blocking the RD-180 imports on April 30. She rescinded that order last Thursday, May 8, after receiving written communications clarifications from the US Justice and Commerce departments that the engine import did not violate the US government imposed sanctions.

Rogozin went on to say that “Moscow also isn’t planning to agree to the US offer of prolonging operation of the International Space Station (ISS) [to 2024].

“We currently project that we’ll require the ISS until 2020,” he said. “We need to understand how much profit we’re making by using the station, calculate all the expenses and depending on the results decide what to do next.”

“A completely new concept for further space exploration is currently being developed by the relevant Russian agencies”.

NASA announced early this year the agency’s intention to extend ISS operations to at least 2024, and is seeking agreement from all the ISS partners including Russia.

Since the shutdown of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 before a replacement crew vehicle was available, American astronauts are now 100% dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for rides to the ISS and back.

Congress has also repeatedly slashed NASA’s commercial crew program budget, forcing at least an 18 month delay in its start up and thus continued reliance on the Soyuz for years to come at over $70 million per seat.

NASA thus has NO immediate alternatives to Russia’s Soyuz – period.

The Atlas V is also planned as the launcher for two of the three companies vying for the next round of commercial crew contracts aimed at launching US astronauts to the ISS. The commercial crew contracts will be awarded by NASA later this year.

In a previous statement regarding the US sanctions against Russia, Rogozin said that sanctions could “boomerang” against the US space program and that perhaps NASA should “deliver their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

Curiosity rover launches to Mars atop Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer
NASA’s Curiosity rover launches to Mars atop Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Atlas V 1st stage is powered by Russian made RD-180 engines.
Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s articles as the Ukraine crisis escalates with uncertain and potentially dire consequences for US National Security and NASA.

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

Ken Kremer

………

Ken’s upcoming presentation: Mercy College, NY, May 19: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars” and “NASA’s Future Crewed Spaceships.”

The International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit.  Credit: NASA
The International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit.
The sole way for every American and station partner astronaut to fly to space and the ISS is aboard the Russian Soyuz manned capsule since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles in 2011. There are currently NO alternatives to Russia’s Soyuz. Credit: NASA

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

US Spy Sat and SpaceX Set for Double Barreled Blastoffs After Critical Cape Canaveral Radar Revitalized

The Florida Space Coast is about to ignite with a doubled barreled dose of spectacular rocket launches from Cape Canaveral over the next few days that were suddenly postponed two weeks ago 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.

A pair of liftoffs vital to US National Security and NASA/SpaceX are now slated for April 10 and April 14 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after revitalizing the radar systems.

The tracking radar is an absolutely essential asset for the Eastern Range that oversees all launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V is now slated to launch on Thursday, April 10 at 1:45 p.m. EDT.

Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA
Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA

The Atlas V rocket is carrying the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The 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.

The pair of liftoffs of the Atlas V and Falcon 9 boosters for the NRO and SpaceX/NASA had been slated just days apart on March 25 and March 30, respectively.

Falcon 9 and Dragon static fire test on March 8, 2014. Credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 and Dragon static fire test on March 8, 2014. Credit: SpaceX

I was on site at Cape Canaveral Launch Pad 41 photographing the Atlas V rocket carrying the NRO payload in anticipation of the launch.

Shortly thereafter a fire of unexplained origin in the radar equipment unexpected occurred and knocked the tracking radar off line. When no quick fix was possible, both launches were delayed indefinitely pending repairs.

“The tracking radar experienced an electrical short, overheating the unit and rendering the radar inoperable,” said the USAF in a statement I received from the 45th Space Wing that controls the critical launch control systems, communications, computers and radar elements at the Eastern Range.

On Monday, April 7, the Air Force announced that range repairs were on target and that a retired, inactive radar had been brought back online.

“A radar that was previously in standby status has been brought back to operational status while the repair work is being accomplished,” said the USAF in a statement.

A fully functional tracking radar is an absolute requirement to ensure the success and safety of every rocket launch.

Insufficient maintenance and antiquated equipment due to a lack of US government funding and investment in infrastructure may be at fault for the electrical short.

The Eastern range radar must function perfectly in order to destroy any rocket in a split second in the event it abruptly veers off course towards the nearby populated areas along the Florida Space Coast.

The Atlas V rocket was rolled out earlier today to Space Launch Complex 41 in preparation for Thursday’s NROL-67 launch. The weather forecast shows a 90 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for launch.

The Dragon spacecraft, filled with about 4,600 lbs of cargo bound for the space station, is mated with Falcon 9.  Credit: SpaceX
The Dragon spacecraft, filled with about 4,600 lbs of cargo bound for the space station, is mated with Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX

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

Crucial Radar Outage Scrubs US National Security and SpaceX Launches for Several Weeks from Cape Canaveral

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – The sudden and unexpected outage of a crucial tracking radar that is mandatory to insure public safety, has forced the scrub of a pair of launches planned for this week from Cape Canaveral, FL, that are vital to US National Security, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX and NASA.

The tracking radar is an absolutely essential asset for the Eastern Range that oversees all launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center on the Florida Space Coast.

The pair of liftoffs for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and SpaceX/NASA had been slated just days apart on March 25 and March 30.

Urgent repairs are in progress.

Both launches have now been postponed for a minimum of 3 weeks, according to a statement I received from the 45th Space Wing of the US Air Force that controls the critical launch control systems, communications, computers and radar elements.

An Atlas V rocket carrying the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office and a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo freightor bound for the International Space Station (ISS) were both in the midst of the final stages of intensive pre-launch processing activities this week.

The Eastern range radar was apparently knocked out by a fire on March 24, a short time after the early morning rollout of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral.

“An investigation revealed a tracking radar experienced an electrical short, overheating the unit and rendering it inoperable,” according to today’s explanatory statement from the USAF 45th Space Wing.

“The outage resulted in an inability to meet minimum public safety requirements needed for flight, so the launch was postponed.”

A SpaceX spokesperson likewise confirmed to me that their launch was also on hold.

Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA
Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA

A fully functional tracking radar is an absolute requirement to ensure the success and safety of any launch.

The range radar must also be functioning perfectly in order to destroy the rocket in a split second in the event it veers off course to the nearby heavily populated areas along the Space Coast.

Myself and other space journalists had been working at Pad 41 on March 24 and setting up our remote cameras to capture spectacular up close views of the blastoff that had then been scheduled for March 25.

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

Insufficient maintenance and antiquated equipment due to a lack of US government funding and investment in infrastructure may be implicated.

The range outage for such an extended period of time reveals a clear vulnerability in US National Security planning.

The Air Force is also looking into the feasibility of reviving an inactive radar as a short term quick fix.

But in order to use the retired backup system, it will also have to re-validated to ensure utility and that all launch control and public safety requirements are fully met.

Simultaneously, the engineering team is recalculating launch trajectories and range requirements.

Such a revalidation process will also require an unknown period of time.

The full impact of putting these two launches on hold for the NRO and SpaceX is not known at this time.

An upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS is slated to launch on March 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL.   File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
An upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS is slated to launch on March 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Furthermore, the USAF will need to determine the downstream scheduling impact on the very busy manifest of all of the remaining launches throughout 2014 – averaging more than one per month.

Neither the NRO nor NASA and SpaceX have announced firm new launch dates.

The earliest possible Atlas V launch date appears to be sometime in mid-April, but that assessment can change on a dime.

In the meantime, personnel from the 45th Space Wing will continue to work diligently to repair the range radar equipment as quickly as possible.

ULA engineers also rolled the Atlas V rocket back to its processing hanger until a new launch target date is set.

SpaceX likewise awaits a target launch date for the Dragon CRS-3 cargo mission packed with some 5000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the six man station crew.

It seems likely that the next Orbital Sciences Antares/Cygnus launch to the ISS will also have to be postponed since Dragon and Cygnus berth at the same station port.

Space journalists and photographers pose at Launch Pad 41 during camera setup with the Atlas V rocket slated to loft super secret NROL-67 spy satellite to orbit. Ken Kremer/Universe Today at right.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Space journalists and photographers pose at Launch Pad 41 during camera setup with the Atlas V rocket slated to loft super secret NROL-67 spy satellite to orbit; Ben Cooper, Don Hludiak, Mike Howard, Mike Deep, Matthew Travis, Hap Griffin, Jeff Seibert, Alan Walters, Julian Leek, Ken Kremer/Universe Today at right. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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 and at Washington Crossing State Park, NJ on April 6. Also at the Quality Inn Kennedy Space Center, Titusville, FL, March 29.

Ken Kremer