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Hush-hush payload rides Atlas 5 rocket into orbit
Posted: April 10, 2014

Setting sail at mid-day on a marathon trip to orbit, an Atlas 5 rocket launched a classified spacecraft for the National Reconnaissance Office on Thursday.

Credit: Ben Cooper/
Igniting its main engine and four strap-on boosters at 1:45 p.m. EDT, the 20-story-tall rocket bolted skyward and arced over the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

The liftoff continued a string of fuel-and-launches for the Atlas, marking the 12th mission in a row to launch on the first countdown attempt.

It was a powerful display of over two million pounds of thrust for a version of the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 used only once previously to launch NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity to the Red Planet.

Within four minutes, the rocket's nose cone was jettisoned and the now-familiar news blackout commenced for the rest of the vehicle's flight.

It would be over four hours later that a successful outcome was announced by ULA, marking the 116th consecutive successful Atlas launch in the past 20 years.

"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."

Space-watchers suspect this is a new eavesdropping spacecraft, a lighter version than previous satellites that needed the heft of a Delta 4-Heavy rocket to lift them into orbit.

"I believe that it will launch a new generation of geosynchronous orbit signals intelligence satellite," said Ted Molczan, a respected satellite observer.

"The NRO remains committed to maintaining its stellar record of acquisition and program successes, while also delivering a more capable, resilient, and affordable future NRO architecture to respond to emerging threats and dynamic mission needs," said NRO Director Betty Sapp.

The NRO operates optical and radar imaging satellites, the associated data relay platforms and various types of eavesdropping and naval surveillance spacecraft in support of the U.S. intelligence community.

"A real strength of the NRO is our ability to fuse multi- intelligence data to support warfighter intelligence needs. We have helped the warfighter visualize large volumes of data temporally and spatially, establishing patterns of life, identifying the unusual within a multitude of fused data sets, and integrating full motion video data with automated multi- intelligence tipping, cueing, and alerting capabilities," said Sapp.

"Our cutting-edge solutions combine GEOINT and SIGINT, and span the space, air, and ground operational domains to improve the warfighter's common operational picture and enhance his effectiveness in finding, fixing, and finishing targets."

The NRO has now launched seven times in the past two years using Atlas and Delta rockets.

"ULA's Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets are the most powerful and most reliable in the world. They are the only rockets that fully meet the unique and specialized needs of the national security community," said ULA CEO Michael Gass.

"Looking to the future, we are investing in new technology and concepts to make our products better and more affordable. We are investing internal funds to develop a capability to launch two GPS satellites at a time which will cut launch costs almost in half. ULA, along with our government customers, is reviewing every requirement and every process to eliminate any unnecessary or inefficient elements."

The next Atlas launch is planned for next month on another NRO flight from the Cape.