Details emerging about a secret National Reconnaissance Office Atlas V mission, set for launch from Cape Canaveral early Monday June 18, indicate the payload is most likely a 7,900 lb. Satellite Data System (SDS) Block 3 relay spacecraft key to a wide range of U. S. intelligence operations.
Liftoff of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 version, with no solid rocket boosters, is set for a launch window that stretches from 8:26 a.m. till 9:25 a.m.
There was another major space launch this weekend, the June 16 6:37 a.m. EDT liftoff early Saturday of a Chinese Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan carrying China’s first woman astronaut, 33 yr. old Mrs. Liu Yang, a Chinese military pilot.
Liu is part of the three member Shenzhou 9 crew that on Monday June 18 is to fly a “hands off” auto docking with the Tiangong 1 space outpost. The crew will live on board, two at a time, for most of 9 days, during which they will also undock and perform China’s first “hands on” piloted space docking back to the single module station prototype.
Here at Cape Canaveral the due east launch azimuth revealed by the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing confirms that the Atlas V mission is going to geosynchronous orbit and is likely a relay satellite.
A constellation of SDS 3 spacecraft are positioned in geosynchronous orbit to receive intelligence data from imaging, ocean surveillance and eavesdropping spacecraft and relay it around the world to NRO ground stations in real time.
The official NRO mission patch for the flight has a three headed “Drake” hydra dragon. This is a possible clue that the spacecraft can do more than one thing at a time, just like the differing spacecraft that an SDS spacecraft can serve simultaneously.
Six previous SDS 3 model spacecraft have been launched since 1998. This launch designated NROL-38 is likely bound for 144 deg. W Long. in geosynchronous orbit, according to military space analyst Ted Moltzan. He believes the spacecraft will replace an earlier SDS spacecraft launched by an Atlas IIAS rocket in October, 2001.
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) marketing department is trying to make hay for both the Atlas V and Delta IV launchers by noting that Monday’s planned flight mark’s the 50th launch of an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV).
But Monday’s launch is also the 31st Atlas V, outpacing the Delta IV by 19 missions in terms of overall EELV utilization.
This especially occurred because in 2003 the Boeing Delta IV team was accused by the U. S. Air Force of cheating during the initial EELV procurement by illegally possessing 25,000 pages of Lockheed Martin Atlas V documents.
Because of the document scandal, the Pentagon in 2003 stripped Boeing of about 10 military space and NRO launch contracts worth $1 billion and suspended Boeing’s Delta IV rocket division from bidding for new military space business for a period of time. That enabled the Atlas V to regain a lead that the Delta IV marketing team had built up prior to the merger.
The two companies had to form a joint venture under ULA to settle the situation for the U. S. Air Force. Now they may be happily married under ULA, but that does not necessarily give them a cost benefit in the eyes of the Air Force. No matter whether ULA has passed 50 launches or not, future USAF launch contracts for itself and NRO will be based on cost. Of course ULA’s perfect EELV launch record is critical, but the Air Force and NRO expect no less.
The fact is that for the first time, ULA now faces strong and viable competition from the much lower cost SpaceX commercial Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy, if the Heavy is able to prove itself. That increased competition probably has nothing to do with the fact that the mythical “Anubis”– the Egyptian “God of the Dead”–looms over an Atlas V on the NROL 38 launch patch (below).