Six weeks later than planned, following Range instrumentation issues at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the National Reconnaissance Office’s NROL-36 classified payload – believed to be a pair of $1.3 billion NRO Ocean Surveillance Satellites (NOSS), dedicated to monitoring worldwide civilian and military shipping – thundered into orbit at 2:39 p.m. PDT on Sept. 13, 2012. Preliminary data indicates that the venerable United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V booster, nicknamed ‘Rosie’, performed admirably, successfully inserting NROL-36 into orbit shortly after launch.
Delayed since early August, the successful ascent will allay many nerves at ULA, whose launch-on-time record is often flawless, and indicates an apparent return to normal operations for Vandenberg. The 19-story Atlas V flew in its so-called ‘401’ configuration, with a 4-metre-wide (13-foot) payload fairing, no strap-on rockets and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.
Its primary payload, believed to be a pair of NOSS spacecraft, will be positioned in a high-inclination orbit at an altitude of about 1,100 miles to track every warship, all commercial and large private vessels, anywhere in the world. The NOSS twins use a technique known as ‘interferometry’ to detect radio transmissions from the ships and ‘geolocate’ them using Time Difference of Arrival. NROL-36 represents the sixth launch in the third-generation NOSS series and its official mission patch – bearing a fearsome bull and the legend ‘Freedom’s Shield and Hope’ – illustrates its importance.
“Today’s successful launch of the NROL-36 mission occurred on the same day as the national memorial service honoring American hero Neil Armstrong. The scientists and engineers developing and operating these remarkable current-day launch and spacecraft systems reflect Neil’s incredible legacy to mankind,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Mission Operations. “Today’s launch marks the fourth and final EELV mission for the NRO’s Road to Launch 2012 accomplished in the last five months. This launch tempo is a tribute to all of the mission partners’ dedication and continued focus on mission success – one launch at a time.”
Two and a half seconds before liftoff, the Atlas first stage’s Russian-built RD-180 engine roared to life, reaching full power at T-zero, and climb-out from Space Launch Complex-3E (SLC-3E) commenced at T+1.1 seconds. The vehicle followed a south-south-easterly heading, with the first stage burning out after four minutes. Slightly ahead of cut-off, the RD-180 was throttled back to limit acceleration loads and, after separation, came the turn of the Centaur upper stage. This burned for more than 14 minutes, coasted for an hour, then executed a second burn, lasting a minute or so, to achieve NROL-36’s required transfer orbit. Shortly afterwards, the twin satellites were expected to be deployed from their payload shroud.
Also aboard the Atlas were eleven miniaturised, low-cost satellites, known as ‘CubeSats’. Measuring about the same size as a Rubik’s cube, and weighing no more than 22 pounds, these satellites were provided through NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) and NRO’s Mission Support Directorate. Primary scientific objectives include exploring Earth’s magnetosphere, charged particles in our radiation belts, predicting ‘space weather’ and monitoring the cosmic X-ray background. Other technological investigations include evaluating deployable thin-film mechanisms for de-orbit capability, using a 20-inch mesh antenna to track electronic tags on shipping containers, test experimental communications devices and optically track space debris.
Nanosatellites (ELaNa) and NRO’s Mission Support Directorate. Four of them come under the ELaNa umbrella: the University of California at Berkeley’s CubeSat for Ion, Neutral, Electron, Magnetic Fields (CINEMA), the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Colorado Student Space Weather Experiment (CSSWE), Morehead State University’s Cosmic X-ray Background Nanosat (CXBN) and Colorado Polytechnic University’s CP-5. The others – ‘Aeneas’ for the University of Southern California, a pair of satellites for the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC, dubbed ‘Able’ and ‘Baker’), the Space-based Telescopes for Actionable Refinement of Ephemeris (STARE) and a trio of ‘AeroCubes’ – have been funded by the NRO or other elements of the U.S. military.