Air Force’s Secret X-37B Space Plane Launches on Third Mission

Rising slowly on over 800,000 lbs of thrust, the Atlas V-OTV 3 mission begins. Credit: John O’Connor/nasatech

An Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station today, carrying the Air Force’s X-37B space plane into orbit on its third classified mission. Launch took place at 1:03 EST (18:03 UTC) for the unmanned Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), which looks like a mini space shuttle.

The U.S. Air Force has not released any details of what may be on board the vehicle or what its mission may be. United Launch Alliance provided a webcast of the launch, but the broadcast was ended “at the request of our customer (the Air Force),” when the space plane successfully reached orbit.

See a video of the launch, below.

The X-37B is launched like a satellite and rides inside the fairing of the Atlas rocket. The X-37B can operate at in low Earth orbit for extended periods of time – the previous mission stayed in orbit for 469 days – and can re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land on autopilot, landing just like a plane on a runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Well into its roll program, the Atlas V-501 gracefully arcs across the blue skies. Credit: John O’Connor/nasatech

While looking much like the space shuttle, the X-37B is about 1/4 the size of NASA’s space shuttle’s and is built using composites lighter than aluminum, and it uses a new type of leading wing tiles, called Tough Rock, instead of the shuttle’s carbon-carbon tiles. It runs on solar power allowing for longer missions.

The plane itself is not so secretive – the Air Force has released images of it while it is on the ground – but its mission and payload are what are kept confidential. The mission could be Earth observation, surveillance or spying, or perhaps deploying a satellite.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V is rolled to the pad at Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of the Air Force?s third Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-3) mission. Credit: ULA

The launch was delayed several times so that ULA could investigate a glitch during a launch back in October.

“We had a little bit of concern with our upper stage engine, so we wanted to do some investigation and look into what was going on with that engine prior to (launch of the Orbital Test Vehicle),” said Jessica Rye, a ULA spokesperson.

In past missions, satellite watchers and amateur astronomers have kept tabs on the X-37B’s orbital whereabouts, and thanks to them, we expect to be able to provide small details about the space plane’s mission in the coming months.

More information: ULA

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/

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/

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/

“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

Top Secret Air Force Mini Shuttle lands after Record-Setting Stay in Space

Image Caption: 2nd X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Successfully Completes 1st Flight by landing at Vandernberg AFB, Calif., on June 16, 2012. The record setting mission lasted 469 days in earth orbit. Designed to be launched like a satellite and land like an airplane, the second X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, built by Boeing for the United States Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, is an affordable, reusable space vehicle. Credit: Boeing.
See landing video below

The 2nd of the US Air Force’s top secret X-37B unmanned, reusable mini shuttles safely landed on Saturday, June 16, at 5:48 a.m. Pacific local time at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California to conclude a record setting classified 469 day experimental test flight in Earth orbit.

This was the first flight of OTV-2 and the second flight of the military’s classified X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) test program for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

The reusable space plane is designed to be launched like a satellite and land on a runway like an airplane and NASA space shuttle. The X-37B is one of the newest and most advanced reentry spacecraft.

Here is the YouTube landing video released by the US Air Force:

OTV-2 was launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on March 5, 2011.

About 18 minutes after launch, the Air Force imposed a news blackout on the classified mission. Details about the cargo and experiments loaded aboard the Air Force orbital space plane are shrouded behind a veil of military security.

It is not known if the X-37B conducted reconnaissance activities during the test flight. It does have the capability to deploy satellites in space

The Air Force says the primary mission goal was to check out the vehicles capabilities and testing the ability to send experiments to space and return them safely.

Image caption: Top secret Air Force X-37B OTV mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to 5 March 2011 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the classified X 37-B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer

The mission duration of well over one year far exceeded the 220-day mission duration of the first OTV craft and tested additional capabilities. Two OTV vehicles have been built by Boeing. The first craft, known as OTV-1, was the United States’ first unmanned vehicle to return from space and land on its own.

Previously, NASA space shuttles piloted by astronauts were the only space vehicles that had demonstrated the capability of returning to Earth and being reused.

“The vehicle was designed for a mission duration of about 270 days,” said Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, the X-37B program manager in an Air Force statement. “We knew from post-flight assessments from the first mission that OTV-1 could have stayed in orbit longer. So one of the goals of this mission was to see how much farther we could push the on-orbit duration.”

The 11,000 pound state-of -the art reusable OTV space plane was built by Boeing and is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. It was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

“With the retirement of the space shuttle fleet, the X-37B OTV program brings a singular capability to space technology development,” McIntyre said. “The return capability allows the Air Force to test new technologies without the same risk commitment faced by other programs”

Among the cutting-edge technologies tested were the auto de-orbit capability, thermal protection tiles, and high-temperature components and seals.

“The X-37B’s advanced thermal protection and solar power systems, and environmental modeling and range safety technologies are just some of the technologies being tested,” said McIntyre. “Each mission helps us continue to advance the state-of-the-art in these areas.”

Image caption: Blastoff of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) atop an Atlas V rocket on March 5, 2011 from Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

OTV-1 may lift off as early as October 2012 from Cape Canaveral.

“We look forward to the second launch of OTV-1 later this year and the opportunity to demonstrate that the X-37B is an affordable space vehicle that can be repeatedly reused,” said Paul Rusnock, Boeing vice president of Government Space Systems.

Read my X-37B OTV-2 pre-launch report and see my up-close photo album of the Atlas launch pad – here

Ken Kremer

Secret X-37B Mini Space Shuttle Could Land Today

The first X-37B landing in 2010. Credit: Vandenberg Air Force Base.


After more than a year in orbit, the US Air Force’s clandestine mini-space shuttle will likely land at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California sometime this week, with some reports saying it could land as early as today, Wednesday, June 13, 2012. It has been in orbit since March 5, 2011, but like the first X-37B mission that flew in 2010 and spent 224 days in space, the Air Force has not issued any information of what the craft is doing or where it is orbiting. However, amateur skywatchers and amateur satellite trackers have been keeping an eye on where the OTV-2 has been.

After launch it had a 331 km (206-mile)orbit inclined 42.8 degrees to the equator, but in the summer of 2011 the orbit was raised slightly to 337 km (209 miles).
The craft looks like a miniature space shuttle, and is 8.8 meters (29 feet) long with a wing span of 4.2 meters (14 feet). It can weigh up to about 5,000 kg (11,000 pounds) fueled for launch. The reported in-space design life is 270 days, but sources say that good performance on this mission enabled ground controllers to keep it aloft significantly longer.

Jeremy Eggers, a spokesman for the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg was quoted by ABC News that the spacecraft’s first available landing opportunity will be Wednesday, depending on weather and technical conditions. The landing window extends through June 18, but Eggers says any landing is a “day-by-day situation based on the conditions.”

Next Generation Military Communications Satellite Launched for US Air Force

Blastoff of the Atlas V rocket carrying the highly advanced AEHF-2 military communication satellite for the US Air Force on May 4 from Pad 41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer


The second satellite in the new constellation of next generation military communications satellites for the US Air Force was successfully launched to orbit today (May 4) atop a powerful Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at Space Launch Complex- 41 in Florida. It will provide worldwide highly secure communications between the President and the Armed Forces.

Blastoff of the expensive and highly capable $1.7 Billion satellite – dubbed Advanced Extremely High Frequency-2 (AEHF-2) – at the precisely appointed time of 2:42 p.m. EDT (1842 GMT) came after a suspect helium valve and spurious signals forced a scrub of the first launch attempt yesterday, May 3, causing a 24 hour postponement of the launch.

“The AEHF satellites will provide the backbone of protection for US strategic satellite communications,” Capt John Francis, of the Space & Missile Systems Center SATCOM Division, told Universe Today in an interview at the Florida launch site.

“I’m thrilled with today’s launch !” Francis told me after witnessing the liftoff.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster stands 197 feet tall. The liquid fueled first stage is powered by a Russian designed RD-180 engine augmented with three Aerojet solid rocket motors strapped on to the side of the first stage. The solids are jettisoned during ascent.

Atlas V rocket and the highly advanced AEHF-2 military communications satellite soar to space on May 4, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

The extremely reliable Atlas V rockets boosted NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory and Juno Jupiter Orbiter to their interplanetary destinations in 2011.

AEHF-2 weighs approximately 13,600 pounds and was built by Lockheed Martin.

The spacecraft was successfully separated from the Centaur upper stage about 51 minutes after liftoff as planned and placed into a preliminary transfer orbit. The Centaur was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL10A engine.

On board thrusters and the Hall current thruster electric propulsion system will maneuver the spacecraft over about the next three months to its final orbit about 22,300 miles above the equator.

The AEHF satellite family is a vastly improved and upgraded version of the Lockheed Martin-built Milstar constellation currently on-orbit.

“The AEHF constellation has 10 times more throughput compared to Milstar”, Capt. Francis explained.

“They will provide 24 hour near whole world coverage and have a 14 year lifetime.”

“AEHF-2 can maneuver in orbit. It will take about 100 days to reach its parking orbit and can move to theatre hot spots as needed to assist the local troops such as in Afghanistan”, said Francis.

Launch of AEHF-2 military communications satellite atop Atlas V rocket on May 4, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

It will operate 24/7 and provide vastly improved global, survivable, highly secure, protected communications for warfighters operating on ground, sea and air platforms. AEHF will also serve America’s international partners including Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

AEHF-2 is the second satellite in a planned constellation of at least four satellites – and perhaps as many as six satellites – that the military says will eventually replace the aging Milstar system.

“The remaining AEHF satellites will be launched over the next 2 years”, Capt. Francis stated.

A single AEHF satellite provides greater total capacity than the entire five-satellite Milstar constellation. Individual user data rates will be increased five-fold, permitting transmission of tactical military communications, such as real-time video, battlefield maps and targeting data. In addition to its tactical mission, AEHF also provides the critical survivable, protected, and endurable communications links to national leaders including presidential conferencing in all levels of conflict.

The satellite system is used by all levels of the US Government from soldiers in the field in Afghanistan to President Obama in the White House.

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

Blast off of sophisticated SBIRS GEO-1 satellite aboard an Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 2:10 p.m. EDT on May 7, 2011. Credit: Alan Walters/

[/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/
“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 --
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/
Atlas V SBIRS GEO-1 launch from Cape Canaveral on May 7, 2011. Credit: Alan Walters/
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

Atlas Rocket Poised for Blast Off with Advanced Missile Early Warning Spy Satellite

The Atlas V rocket was rolled to the launch pad in support of the Atlas V Space Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) GEO-1 launch set for Friday at 2:14 p.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer


CAPE CANAVERAL – An Atlas V rocket is poised to blast off today, May 6 , with the inaugural version of a new and highly advanced series of US spy satellites which will provide early warning of missile launches to US military forces. The Space Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) GEO-1 satellite is set to liftoff Friday afternoon at 2:14 p.m. The launch window extends until 2:54 p.m. EDT.

The new satellite for the US Air Force is considered to be one of the highest priority military space programs. Covert intelligence satellites played a key role in hunting down Al Qaida terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden in the recent military strike by US forces inside Pakistan.

This Atlas V rocket will carry the Space Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) GEO-1 secret spy satellite to orbit for the US Air Force on May 6, 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer

The Atlas V rocket with a Centaur upper stage was rolled out to the launch pad at Complex 41 on Wednesday morning and arrived at 11 a.m.

Twin track mobiles pushed the rocket and satellite combination about 1800 feet from the launch gantry – known as the Vertical Integration Facility – to the pad. Reporters and photojournalists including myself toured the pad for a photoshoot Wednesday afternoon.

The countdown has begun and clocks are ticking backwards for today’s planned liftoff.

Super-cold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fuel begins to flow into the rocket shortly after noon.

The launch will be webcast by United Launch Alliance at this link:

Weather is the only concern and has deteriorated over the past few days. As of this morning the chances of acceptable weather has dropped to just 30% favorable due to the increasing threat of isolated clouds and rain showers. Weather conditions are currently overcast here in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral and are deteriorating with a good chance of thunderstorms. .

The SBIRS GEO-1 satellite will provide global , persistent, infrared surveillance capability to meet 21st century US military demands in four key areas including missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence and battle space awareness.

Later this year, Atlas V rockets will launch two high profile NASA Planetary missions to space; the solar powered JUNO Jupiter Orbiter in August and the Mars Curiosity Rover in November.

Beautiful clouds over Launch Complex 41 ahead of SBIRS GEO-1 spy satellite launch. Credit: Ken Kremer

Experimental Scramjet Aircraft Set for Test Flight

Artists concept of the X-51A Waverider. Credit: US Air Force

The X-51A Waverider hypersonic scramjet project is set for its second test flight today, and the U.S. Air Force hopes it will demonstrate technology that can eventually be used for more efficient transport of payloads into orbit. The craft will be carried to 15,240 meters (50,000 ft.) by a B-52 from Edwards Air Force Base in California, and be dropped over the Pacific Ocean. A booster rocket will fire, getting the Waverider to Mach 4.5; then the scramjet will kick in, and designers hope it will reach Mach 6 or more.

The X-51 Waverider program is a cooperative effort of the Air Force, DARPA, NASA, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

In May 2010, the first test of the vehicle had sort of a “successful” flight of 200 seconds of autonomous flight, which set a duration record for an aircraft powered by a scramjet (short for “supersonic combustion ramjet”) engine. However, it was hoped that the X-51A would fly for as long as 300 seconds (or 5 minutes) and reach Mach 6. But during that flight, the Waverider suddenly lost acceleration, and the vehicle was “terminated” (destroyed – as planned, the Air Force said) while moving at Mach 5. The loss of acceleration was attributed to a design flaw, which led to hot exhaust gas leaking from the engine into electronics bays.


The scramjet is an air-breathing engine, where intake air blows through its combustion chamber at supersonic speeds. This has been compared to lighting a match in a hurricane, and the concept has had limited success. The engine has no moving parts, and the oxygen needed by the engine to combust is taken from the atmosphere passing through the vehicle, instead of from a tank onboard, making the craft smaller, lighter and faster. Designers say it could reach speeds of anywhere from Mach 12 to Mach 24. Mach 24 is more than 29,000 km/hour (18,000 miles per hour.) This could cut an 18-hour trip to Tokyo from New York City to less than 2 hours.

Sources: NASA, The Register, Spaceports

Spectacular Sunset Launch of new US Spy Satellite

Delta IV blast off with NROL-27 clandestine military payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) on March 11, 2011 at 6:38 p.m. from Cape Canaveral at Space Launch Complex-37 in Florida. Credit: Alan Walters. See Delta launch photo gallery below.


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.
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.
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.
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.
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

New Satellite for Monitoring Space Debris To Launch

The Air Force Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) system. Credit: Boeing


The U.S. Air Force will launch the first-ever satellite dedicated solely to tracking the positions of other satellites and the thousands of pieces of space debris in Earth orbit. The $500 million Space-Based Space Surveillance satellite, scheduled for a July 8 launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California, will continuously monitor the “traffic” around the Earth, providing an unobstructed view day or night. Currently, the ground-based radar and optical telescopes used to track satellites and space junk can only be used on clear nights, and not all the observatories are powerful enough to detect objects in high or geosynchronous orbits.

This is the first satellite in the SBSS System that will eventually lead to a constellation of satellites to detect and track orbiting space objects, according to Boeing, the prime contractor for this first “Pathfinder” satellite. While the Air Force is the primary user of the SBSS satellites, the US Department of Defense will also use data from the eventual satellite system to support military operations, and NASA can use the information to calculate orbital debris collision-avoidance measures for the International Space Station and Space Shuttle missions.

The Air Force estimates there are about 1,000 functioning satellites and about 20,000 pieces of debris orbiting Earth.

The new satellite will be in orbit 627 kilometers (390 miles) above the Earth, and has an optical camera on a swivel mount, so the camera’s view can be changed without burning fuel to move the satellite, and will concentrate on satellites and debris in deep space. The information from the satellite will be sent to a command center at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado.

The Air Force space surveillance network previously had partial use of a satellite called the Midcourse Space Experiment, which was designed to track missiles but could also monitor objects in orbit. It’s no longer functioning.

Right now, the Air Force can detect objects as small as 10 centimeters across, or about 4 inches, and they have not released information on the the capabilities of the new satellite.

The Secure World Foundation says there could be millions of pieces of debris in total around the Earth. Debris at altitudes above several hundred kilometers can stay in orbit for decades or even centuries, and those about 1,500 kilometers will remain in orbit for thousands of years. Even very small particles of space debris can have a devastating effect on anything they hit because of their high relative impact velocities.

Chart of orbital debris. Source: NASA Orbital Debris Quarterly News, April 2009,

This chart displays a summary of all objects in Earth orbit officially cataloged by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. “Fragmentation Debris” includes satellite breakup debris and anomalous event debris, while “Mission?related Debris” includes all objects dispensed, separated, or released as part of the planned mission. Note the dramatic increase in fragmentation debris caused by the Chinese ASAT test conducted in January 2007. Another smaller increase is noted following the 2009 collision between an Iridum communications satellite and a non-functioning Russian satellite.

It is hoped the new SBSS satellite will increase the capabilities to help avoid future collisions.

Sources: Boeing, Secure World Foundation, AP