At Cape Canaveral, Fla. a unique, souped up version of the world’s most powerful rocket, the Delta IV Heavy is poised for launch at dawn Friday on an action packed “James Bond” type mission. Designated NROL-15 the flight is carrying a mysterious 21 ton, top secret and long awaited satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
A spectacular sunrise liftoff is planned for 6:13 a.m. EDT June 29, but may have to be postponed an additional day or two because of the rain, clouds and high winds from what was tropical storm Debbie. The storm already forced postponement of the launch by one day from June 28. The NROL-15 mission satellite was actually built nearly 10 years ago and assigned the NROL-15 number around 2004 so it has been waiting years to fly as is. This is because each of its two top secret predecessors lasted about 10 years in orbit.
The Heavy was built by United Launch Alliance, a venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. This will be only the 6th Heavy launched, but this vehicle is a one of a kind rocket specially developed for the NROL-15 mission with much more powerful 800,000 lb. thrust RS-68A engines. The work to upgrade them cost $200 million to add 40,000 lb. more thrust per powerplant. This will push the total cost of the launch vehicle to about $460 million, with the NROL-15 payload costing roughly $2 billion.
Why is the most powerful rocket in the world, not powerful enough to launch the NROL-15 spacecraft without adding more powerful engines? The answer lies in the caper the giant rocket’s second stage will perform with the satellite and the satellite’s roughly 6 tons of its own propellant. These elements add extra weight to a rocket that will already weigh in at about 840 tons at liftoff on nearly 2.4 million lbs. thrust.
Details emerging from the intelligence community indicate that on this flight the 235 ft. tall Delta 4 Heavy may not just be launching a special reconnaissance satellite, but actually conducting a secret bait and switch ruse hundreds of miles above Earth to conceal the satellite’s true nature and destination from China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia.
Respected military space analyst Canadian Ted Molczan who has studied NROL-15’s development going back 10 years says evidence from multiple sources indicate the satellite is likely the No. 3 Misty stealth version of the Advanced KH-11 digital imaging reconnaissance satellite. It is designed to operate totally undetected in about a 435 mi. high orbit with unpredictable overhead arrival times over its imaging targets.
Looking somewhat like a stubby Hubble space telescope stuffed in an giant F-117 stealth fighter with diverse angles to reflect radar signals in directions other than back to receivers on the ground, Misty 3 is also covered in deep black materials designed to absorb so much light that it can not be tracked optically from the ground.
These design aspects are a huge challenge for a satellite that must also deploy solar arrays to generate electrical power and have reflective surfaces to reject heat. The array problem has likely been solved by using large conformal arrays that would only be deployed when out of range of threatening radars. The satellite may actually change shape to reflect heat when not over hostile countries trying to break its cover.
Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia all calculate the overhead arrival times of U. S. reconnaissance satellites so they know when to put their most secret projects under cover until the NRO spacecraft passes.
Two CIA briefers who must remain anonymous told me that aside from monitoring Iran’s nuclear facilities, China is the U. S. intelligence community’s highest priority target but also its most difficult. They said that China has become extremely adept at outwitting U. S. reconnaissance spacecraft by calculating their overflight times and by developing advanced camouflage to conceal what is in the open.
The Delta IV Heavy NROL-15 mission is likely aimed at specifically defeating Chinese and Iranian countermeasures.
The first Misty was launched in 1990 on the space shuttle Atlantis on STS-36 which launched into a 62 deg. inclination orbit designed to observe the faltering Soviet Union. The second Misty was launched in 1999 on board a Titan 4B from Vandenberg AFB Calif. into a similar orbit. Both spacecraft were eventually found by civilian trackers like Molczan. If civilian trackers with commercial laptops can find them, Chinese, Iranian and Russian trackers with far more powerful computers certainly can also.
The orbits for Misty 1 and Misty 2 were easily calculated from their initial launch parameters, a weak link in trying to achieve a truly stealth satellite operation. To achieve that, the disappearing act must be convincingly achieved starting with launch, says Molczan. He proposed two ways that could be done, one of which he expects will be done by the Heavy during launch this week.
The Heavy will fly an eastward launch trajectory exactly like that used for non imaging spacecraft being launched to geosynchronous orbit. That is exactly what U. S. intelligence wants potential adversary countries to believe.
—SPACE DECOY OPTION:
Under this option the Delta IV Heavy is not just carrying the Misty-3 stealth imaging spacecraft, but also a realistic looking decoy satellite to be placed in geosynchronous orbit by the Heavy’s powerful upper stage. A similar decoy was used in 1999 as part of the Misty 2 mission launched on a Titan 4B.
Under this scenario the Heavy would launch on a trajectory used for a routine geosynchronous orbit mission. But it would then stop and coast in a 400-500 mi. orbit out of sight of hostile tracking and quickly deploy the Misty. With tons of its own propellant the Misty would quickly execute maneuvers to depart the Delta IV area while also increasing the plane of its orbit to about 45 deg. latitude or so from where it could image key target areas.
Meanwhile the Delta IV’s upper stage would reignite to carry the decoy all the way to geosynchronous orbit as if that was the primary mission of the flight.
This scenario could lead the potentially hostile countries into believing they needed to track and assess a new NRO geosynchronous orbit mission when in fact Misty-3 would be sneaking up on their secrets undetected.
—HIGHER LATITUDE ORBIT OPTION:
This option would not use a decoy, but still use a launch toward geosynchronous orbit as its starting ploy. It too would coast to a medium altitude area not covered by hostile surveillance where the Misty would be released. The extra 1,000 lb. of extra payload mass available for satellite propellant (derived from the uprated RS-68A engines) combined with the absence of the mass for the decoy would enable the Misty to carry even more propellant.
It would use that propellant by powering into an even higher inclination orbit, more in the 45-50 deg. N Lat. range to take in more of China and Russia.
Meanwhile the Delta IV’s upper stage would power itself into orbit around the Sun, reducing the amount of evidence for adversary countries to analyze to find the missing Misty.
The “Heavy” is made up of three regular sized Delta IV rockets but joined together to create a triple barreled 3 engine behemoth powered by 1.46 million lbs. of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.
A recent study by ATCA Inc. a launch safety engineering firm, has determined in the unlikely event a fully fueled Delta IV Heavy(shown below) fails at liftoff and falls back intact on Launch Complex 37, the resulting explosion would have a blast yield of 1 million lb. of TNT, comparable to a 1 kt. tactical nuclear weapon.