A top secret National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) imaging radar reconnaissance satellite weighing 8 tons, is planned for liftoff March 29 from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. on a Delta IV rocket, intelligence sources say.
The Boeing radar satellite will launch atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Medium booster with two strap-on solid rocket motors. The 16,000 lb. size of the satellite requires an unusually large 5 meter (16.4 ft.) diameter payload faring.
According to the U. S. Air Force, liftoff from SLC-6 is targeted for 3:30 p.m. PDT, 6:30 p.m. EDT.
The Delta IV will be fired south to place the radar satellite into about a 620 mi. polar orbit inclined about 123 deg., “a highly retrograde orbit,” says Ted Molczan, a Canadian based internationally recognized military space tracking expert.
The retrograde or “frozen” polar orbit should ensure the satellite has the same radar look angles of the Earth for every pass over a given target.
The new high resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) spacecraft was built by Boeing under the NRO’s Project E-305, according to Charles P. Vick an analyst with GlobalSecurity.Org.
The project was to develop a new radar reconnaissance satellite that is smaller and less costly, but with equal or higher resolution than the five 33,000 lb. Lacrosse/Onyx imaging radar satellites launched between 1988 and 2005. The first of those radar spacecraft was launched by the space shuttle Atlantis on STS-27.
Imaging radars can see at night and through bad weather and can also penetrate foliage. When first designed in the early 1980s the Lacrosse/Onyx spacecraft were built to spot Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks and artillery as well a camouflaged ballistic missiles.
The roles of high resolution radar imaging spacecraft (with aprox. 1 ft. resolutions) have evolved tremendously and they are used in connection with about four 3 in. resolution electro optical spacecraft. This provides about a nine spacecraft armada to provide 24 hr. tag-team blanket coverage of high threat areas.
Three of the Lacrosse/Onyx radar spacecraft remain operational. They are the pair launched from Vandenberg AFB on Titan 4 rockets in 1997, and 2000 and the final Lacrosse/Onyx launched from Cape Canaveral in 2005 on a Titan 4B that was also the final U. S. Air Force Titan ever launched.
The project to build a replacement for Lacrosse/Onyx was part of the NRO’s Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program. The spacecraft to be launched March 29 will be the second operational FIA radar satellite. The first was launched in September 2010.
The contracts for both the FIA optical and radar spacecraft were awarded to Boeing which accrued multi-billion dollar cost overruns.
In 2005 the NRO canceled Boeing’s optical spacecraft side of the program awarding it to Lockheed which had been successfully building such spacecraft since the 1950s. Boeing retained the radar program however, which had been a Martin Marietta program until the merger with Lockheed.
The FIA program called for at least four operational spacecraft. It also included one smaller test satellite USA-193 launched in 2006 on a Delta II from Vandenberg, a spacecraft that failed seven seconds after separating from its booster.
It was subsequently shot down as a pseudo test of U. S. ship based anti-satellite weapons capability to protect the public from a several thousand pound ball of frozen hydrazine on board the satellite.
If successful this second FIA imaging radar will give the U. S. five operational high resolution imaging radars to image places like Iran and North Korea under night and all weather conditions, revealing things like disturbed dirt from secret tunneling that optical spacecraft can not see as well.
The launch designated by the NRO as NROL-25, will be managed by the 4th Space Squadron of the 30th Space Wing.
Once aloft the FIA radar 1 and 2 spacecraft will orbit 180 deg. out of plane from each other but also make near passes of each other as they orbit Earth in a south to north direction.