Atlas-V Flies NROL-55's Twin Ocean Surveillance Satellites as Air Force Declares Situational Awareness Spacecraft Operational

A successful pre-dawn launch for NRO-55 atop ULA's 58th Atlas-V rocket from Vandenberg AFB, CA this morning at 5:48 a.m. PDT. A pair of 4-ton NRO ocean surveillance satellites are onboard, along with several NRO and NASA Cubesats. Photo Credit: Robert Fisher / AmericaSpace

A successful pre-dawn launch for NRO-55 atop ULA’s 58th Atlas-V rocket from Vandenberg AFB, CA this morning at 5:48 a.m. PDT. A pair of 4-ton NRO ocean surveillance satellites are onboard, along with several NRO and NASA Cubesats. Photo Credit: Robert Fisher / AmericaSpace

Critical U.S. military situational awareness in space and on the high seas is being bolstered tremendously with the apparent successful launch from Vandenberg AFB, Ca. of two new National Reconnaisssance Office (NRO) ocean surveillance spacecraft on the Atlas-V NRO-55 mission this morning, and a declaration by Air Force Space Command that the first two Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral last July on the AFSPC-4 mission are now operational.

It was a busy secret mission today for the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V that carried the two NOSS spacecraft and 13 advanced NRO and NASA CubeSats into a high inclination orbit following liftoff from Vandenberg Space Launch Complex-3 East at 5:59 a.m. PDT. (8:59 a.m. EDT).

An Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-55 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg AFB, CA this morning. Photo Credit: Robert Fisher / AmericaSpace

An Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-55 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg AFB, CA this morning. Photo Credit: Robert Fisher / AmericaSpace

“This launch was an great achievement for Team Vandenberg, ULA, NRO and our launch partners,” said Col. J. Christopher Moss, 30th Space Wing commander, who was the launch decision authority. “Their outstanding professionalism and team work ensured a fantastic launch and I am proud to work with this team of experts in support of national defense.”

As is normal for the Vandenberg launch of National Ocean Surveillance Satellite (NOSS) program spacecraft, no confirmation of mission success was made until Centaur upper stage maneuvers was complete along with measures to confuse adversaries on the exact position of the satellites in their planned 1,000 x 1,200 km. (621 x 745 mi.) orbits inclined 63.4 degrees.

The 191 ft. tall ULA Atlas-V 401 version booster, with an 860,000 lb. thrust Russian Energomash RD-180 oxygen/kerosene engine and no solid rocket boosters, flew on a southern trajectory along the Pacific coast of California and Mexico, past South America and over Antarctica early in its first orbit of what is expected to be an 8-10 year operational lifetime – for both spacecraft.

Interestingly the two spacecraft are expected to long outlive the RD-180 engine that launched them as the Air Force budget process and voices in Congress continue to press the Air Force and ULA to find a U.S. replacement as Russia occupies a large portion of Ukraine and has begun military operations in Syria.

The flight marks Atlas-V launch number 58 for ULA, and the 101st ULA launch since the company was formed.

Given the secret nature of the mission, the only ascent milestones called out publicly during the launch was RD-180 cutoff and first stage separation 4 minutes into the flight, followed by Centaur upper stage ignition at 4 min. 22 sec and nose shroud separation at 4 min 31 sec. into the flight.

As the Navy and NRO assessed the NRO-55 mission the Air Force announced a major milestone aimed at countering potential ASAT threats from Russian and Chinese spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit.

Over the last year the two now operational Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites have provided detailed images of all Russian and Chinese spacecraft in that 22,400 mile altitude regime above the equator.

The Air Force says declaring the system operational “is the latest in a series of efforts by the defense and intelligence communities to strengthen Space Situational Awareness (SSA), including establishing a new GASSP control Center, agreeing to continue working together to increase space collaboration and coordination, and taking other steps to increase resilience.”

According to the Air Force, “The declaration of Initial Operational Capability for GSSAP concludes successful testing of the system. It brings on line an SSA capability that will improve our ability to rapidly detect, warn, characterize and attribute disturbances to space systems in the geosynchronous (GEO) environment. The system reduces the likelihood of space collision, increases safety in this domain and will support U.S. Strategic Command’s assigned mission to plan and conduct SSA.

An Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-55 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg AFB, CA this morning. Photo Credit: ULA

An Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-55 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg AFB, CA this morning. Photo Credit: ULA

Technologies like those being demonstrated on the new ocean surveillance and GSSAP satellites are being further advanced by 9 NRO and 4 NASA CubeSats, to be released from a carrier on the NRO-55 Atlas-V Centaur’s aft bulkhead.

AmericaSpace described each of the CubeSats in our NRO-55 preflight story Oct. 7, but CubeSat managers cited key aspects of the tiny satellites less than 24 hours before launch.

They said release of the individual CubeSats will be staggered and that all of the 13 will not transmit until at least 45 minutes after deployment. NRO-55 classification rules prevented the managers from discussing any details in the deployment plan.

Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for Space Technology at NASA Headquarters said, “the ultimate goal of the major NASA and NRO CubeSat projects are to spawn a paradigm shift in spacecraft operations.” One example is  how a CubeSat developed within NASA funding will evaluate the ability to point a small satellite accurately as it demonstrates data transfer by laser at rates of up to 200 Mb/s — a factor of 100 increase over current high-end CubeSat communications systems.

The other NASA-sponsored CubeSats will test new small satellite control and communications systems, Earth observations, amateur mradio communications and an X-Band radio science transponder.


VIDEO: NROL-55 Launch

 

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