Clandestine Black Ops NRO Satellite Launches into the Black over Florida Spaceport Skies on ULA Atlas V on 5th Try

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit in this long duration exposure carrying covert NROL-52 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office after lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — A clandestine black ops satellite supporting US national defense launched into the black skies over Florida’s spaceport in the dead of night Sunday, Oct. 15, on a mission for the U.S. governments National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) that lit up the night skies offering a spectacular vista on its journey to orbit.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch carrying the covert NROL-52 mission in support of U.S. national security blasted off early Sunday, Oct. 15 at 3:28 a.m. EDT (0728 GMT) from seaside Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“Congratulations to the team who helped make #NROL52 a success! United Launch Alliance, 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., Air Force Space Command, and the Space and Missile Systems Center,” the NRO announced post launch on social media.

“Thanks. It was our privilege to serve your mission,” tweeted ULA CEO Tory Bruno in reply.

“Today’s launch is a testament to the tireless dedication of the ULA team, demonstrating why ULA continues to serve as our nation’s most dependable and successful launch provider,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Government Satellite Launch, in a statement.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the classified NROL-52 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office in support of national security lifted off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Atlas V hauling NROL-52 soon arced over eastwards as it accelerate skywards to deliver the covert satellite to geosynchronous transfer orbit.

As the goals of the secret satellite mission were completely clouded from view perhaps it’s somewhat fitting that overhead clouds furtively rolled in as launch time approached and partially obscured our view – which nevertheless was magnificent!

The Atlas V thundered off pad 41 right at the opening of the middle of the night launch window providing absolutely stunning views to spectators ringing the space coast region as it steaked to orbit – darting in and out of the surprisingly thick cloud layer and affording witnesses who wisely woke up a spectacle they won’t forget.

The top secret payload literally launched into the black. Several minutes after liftoff ULA’s live launch webcast coverage entered a communications blackout.

“At the request of our [NRO] customer, we will wrap up our live #AtlasV #NROL52 [coverage],” said ULA.

Liftoff of ULA Atlas V rocket carrying classified NROL-52 payload for the NRO on Oct. 15, 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

“Never before has innovation been more important for keeping us ahead of the game. As the eagle soars, so will the advanced capabilities this payload provides to our national security,” said Colonel Matthew Skeen, USAF, Director, NRO Office of Space Launch, in a statement. “Kudos to the entire team for a job well done.”

“It’s always a good day when our nation launches an NRO payload that provides vital information to help keep our nation strong and protect us from enemies who wish to do us harm.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the classified NROL-52 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office in support of national security lifted off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The fifth time was finally the charm for the oft postponed launch that initially was delayed from late September into early October by the impact of Hurricane Irma on the Florida Space Coast that caused over $100 million in damage to homes, businesses, marinas, parks and more in Brevard county.

The NROL-52 launch attempt was then scrubbed 4 more times due to lingering awful bouts of rains squalls and threating high winds and even a technical glitch with the S-band transmitter on the second stage of the ULA Atlas V rocket.

Fixing the transmitter required that the Atlas rocket be rolled back off the launch pad and into the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at pad 41 to replace the faulty equipment and verify its reliable operation.

“After recovering from Hurricane Irma that came through the area last month, and the last week’s weather challenges, the team found the right opportunity today to deliver this critical national asset to orbit,” Maginnis stated.

The ULA Atlas V launch of NROL-52 for the U.S. governments National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) concluded a launch double header this week on the Florida Space Coast that began with the sunset launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 of the SES-11 commercial satellite on Wednesday, Oct 11. The Falcon 9 first stage soft landed minutes later on an ocean going platform.

The venerable two stage Atlas V stands 194 feet tall and sports a 100% success record. The first stage generates approx. 1.6 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

This Atlas Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) mission launched in the 421 configuration vehicle, which includes a 4-meter payload fairing (PLF) and two strap on solid rocket first stage boosters.

The Atlas booster for this mission was powered by the Russian-built RD AMROSS RD-180 engine, and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is a joint Department of Defense–Intelligence Community organization responsible for developing, launching, and operating America’s intelligence satellites to meet the national security needs of our nation.

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

NROL-52 was 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.

This marks the 6th and final Atlas V launch of the year.

The NROL-52 mission marks ULA’s seventh launch of 2017 and 26th for the National Reconnaissance Office.

NROL-52 is the 74th flight of the Atlas V rocket and the seventh in the 421 configuration.

“I want to thank the entire ULA team and our mission partners at the NRO and U.S. Air Force who made this, our 26th NRO launch, successful,” said Maginnis.

Up close view of payload fairing encapsulating NROL-52 spysat for the National Reconnaissance Office atop ULA Atlas V rocket. Liftoff is slated for 4:07 a.m. ET, Oct. 5, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NROL-52 is the fourth of five launches slated for the NRO in 2017 by both ULA and SpaceX.

The next NRO launch is scheduled on a ULA Delta IV in December from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Reflecting in a pond a ULA Atlas V rocket stands poised for launch with the NROL-52 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office prior to blastoff on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NROL-52, SpaceX SES-11 and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

ULA Atlas V rocket will deliver the classified NROL-52 spysat to orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office. Liftoff targeted for 4:07 a.m. ET, Oct. 5, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The NROL-52 mission patch depicts an eagle bursting through a red, white and blue shield as a representation of the agency’s resolve to breaking through barriers in pursuit of innovative technologies and capabilities. Credit: NRO
NROL-52 poster. Credit: NRO/ULA

NASA’s Curiosity Set to Search for Signs of Martian Life

[/caption]

Nov 19 Update: MSL launch delayed 24 h to Nov. 26 – details later

In just 7 days, Earth’s most advanced robotic roving emissary will liftoff from Florida on a fantastic journey to the Red Planet and the search for extraterrestrial life will take a quantum leap forward. Scientists are thrilled that the noble endeavor of the rover Curiosity is finally at hand after seven years of painstaking work.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is vastly more capable than any other roving vehicle ever sent to the surface of another celestial body. Mars is the most Earth-like planet in our Solar System and a prime target to investigate for the genesis of life beyond our home planet.

Curiosity is all buttoned up inside an aeroshell at a seaside launch pad atop an Atlas V rocket and final preparations are underway at the Florida Space Coast leading to a morning liftoff at 10:25 a.m. EST on Nov. 25, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday.

MSL is ready to go,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, at a media briefing. “It’s a momentous occasion. We’re just thrilled that we’re at this point.”

“Curiosity is ‘Seeking the Signs of Life’, but is not a life detection mission. It is equipped with state-of-the-art science instruments.”

This oblique view of Gale Crater shows the landing site and the mound of layered rocks that NASA's Mars Science Laboratory will investigate. The landing site is in the smooth area in front of the mound. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/UA

“It’s not your father’s rover. It’s a 2000 pound machine that’s over 6 feet tall – truly a wonder of engineering,” McCuistion stated.

“Curiosity is the best of US imagination and US innovation. And we have partners from France, Canada, Germany, Russia and Spain.”

“Curiosity sits squarely in the middle of our two decade long strategic plan of Mars exploration and will bridge the gap scientifically and technically from the past decade to the next decade.”

Mars Science Laboratory builds upon the improved understanding about Mars gained from current and recent missions,” said McCuistion. “This mission advances technologies and science that will move us toward missions to return samples from and eventually send humans to Mars.”

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover - inside the Cleanroom at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer

The car sized rover is due to arrive at Mars in August 2012 and land inside Gale Crater near the base of a towering and layered Martian mountain, some 5 kilometers (3 miles) high. Gale Crater is 154 km (96 mi) in diameter.

The landing site was chosen because it offers multiple locations with different types of geologic environments that are potentially habitable and may have preserved evidence about the development of microbial life, if it ever formed.

Gale Crater is believed to contain clays and hydrated minerals that formed in liquid water eons ago and over billions of years in time. Water is an essential prerequisite for the genesis of life as we know it.

NASA's most advanced mobile robotic laboratory, the Mars Science Laboratory carrying the Curiosity rover, is set to launch atop an Atlas V rocket at 10:25 a.m. EST on Nov. 25 on a mission to examine one of the most intriguing areas on Mars at Gale crater. Credit: NASA

The one ton robot is a behemoth, measuring 3 meters (10 ft) in length and is nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as NASA’s prior set of twin rovers – Spirit and Opportunity.

Curiosity is equipped with a powerful array of 10 science instruments weighing 15 times as much as its predecessor’s science payloads. The rover can search for the ingredients of life including water and the organic molecules that we are all made of.

Curiosity will embark on a minimum two year expedition across the craters highly varied terrain, collecting and analyzing rock and soil samples in a way that’s never been done before beyond Earth.

Eventually our emissary will approach the foothills and climb the Martian mountain in search of hitherto untouched minerals and habitable environments that could potentially have supported life’s genesis.

With each science mission, NASA seeks to take a leap forward in capability and technology to vastly enhance the science return – not just to repeat past missions. MSL is no exception.

Watch a dramatic action packed animation of the landing and exploration here:

Curiosity was designed at the start to be vastly more capable than any prior surface robotic explorer, said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s Deputy Project Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif

“This is a Mars scientist’s dream machine.”

Therefore this mission uses new technologies to enable the landing of a heavier science payload and is inherently risky. The one ton weight is far too heavy to employ the air-bag cushioned touchdown system used for Spirit and Opportunity and will use a new landing method instead.

Curiosity will pioneer an unprecedented new precision landing technique as it dives through the Martian atmosphere named the “sky-crane”. In the final stages of touchdown, a rocket-powered descent stage will fire thusters to slow the descent and then lower the rover on a tether like a kind of sky-crane and then safely set Curiosity down onto the ground.

NASA has about three weeks to get Curiosity off the ground from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida before the planetary alignments change and the launch window to Mars closes for another 26 months.

“Preparations are on track for launching at our first opportunity,” said Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “If weather or other factors prevent launching then, we have more opportunities through Dec. 18.”

Mars Science Laboratory Briefing. Doug McCuistion, Mars program director, left, Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist, and Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager, share a laugh during a news briefing, Nov. 10, 2011, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Curiosity, NASA's most advanced mobile robotic laboratory, will examine one of the most intriguing areas on Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission is set for launch from Florida's Space Coast on Nov. 25 and is scheduled to land on the Red Planet in August 2012 where it will examine the Gale Crater during a nearly two-year prime mission. Credit: NASA/Paul E. Alers

Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launching 25 Nov. 2011

Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:

Curiosity Rover Bolted to Atlas Rocket – In Search of Martian Microbial Habitats
Closing the Clamshell on a Martian Curiosity
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action