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

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
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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