Secret Satellite Data System Launched via Atlas V

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket thunders off of Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Photo Credit: ULA

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 carried what experienced analysts believe is a top secret Satellite Data System (SDS) relay spacecraft into geosynchronous transfer orbit today, after an 8:28 a.m. EDT liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) located in Florida.

This National Reconnaissance Office NROL-38 mission marks the 50th  Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) flight for United Launch Alliance (ULA) and the U. S. Air Force.

This morning's launch marked the 50th under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Program. Photo Credit: Jeffrey J. Soulliere

The SDS system plays one of the least known,  but most critical roles in national intelligence operations. These spacecraft are especially important to keeping a high resolution imaging watch over specific locations in Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, Syria, Afghanistan and numerous countries harboring terrorist cells.

The official sticker art for the NROL-38 mission. Image Credit: ULA

Operational since 1998, the 7,900 lb. SDS Block 3 relay spacecraft,  placed in geosynchronous orbit or highly elliptical “Molniya” orbits are key to relaying real time imagery back to NRO ground stations from four Advanced KH-11 digital imaging satellites, and possibly also super secret Misty stealthy recon spacecraft.

The Atlas V vehicle and its launch cost about $100 million while the SDS payload is a $500 million class satellite with multiple large antennas to remain in contact with more than one imaging recon spacecraft at a time. A primary ground station and processing facility for this large intelligence operation is at Ft. Belvoir, Va. just 15 mi. south of Washington D. C.

An Atlas V 401 version with a 4 meter faring, but no solid rocket boosters,  was used for the mission. The vehicle climbed from Pad 41 on about 860,000 lb. thrust from its twin bell Russian Energomash/Pratt & Whitney RD-180 engine using liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants.

Moments after liftoff the Atlas V 401 unleashes its 860,000 pounds of thrust to propel its NRO payload to orbit. Photo Credit: ULA

Details emerging from this highly classified mission indicate that after spacecraft separation at roughly 37 min. after launch, the flight’s Centaur upper stage will perform a unique maneuver for an Atlas V on a geosynchronous transfer mission.

After several hours of coasting in the highly elliptical transfer orbit the Centaur’s single 22,300 lb. thrust oxygen/hydrogen Pratt & Whitney RL10A engine, will be commanded to propel the 2 ton 33 ft. long vehicle out of orbit and into an isolated area of the Pacific ocean roughly 8 hr. 45 min. after the launch to reduce space debris hazards.

Only lower altitude Atlas V missions have done this previously. Warnings to ships and aircraft have been posted by the Air Force for the planned Centaur debris footprint.

The NROL-38 mission marks:

–The 2nd of  4 NRO missions in 2012 for ULA.

–The first of three NRO missions in the next 6 weeks for ULA launchers. These are the super secret Delta IV Heavy mission set for launch from Cape Canaveral June 28 and another Atlas V mission set for launch from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. Aug. 2 carrying two ocean surveillance satellites.

The official logo for the NROL-38 mission. Image Credit: USAF

According to noted military space analyst Ted Molczan, the NROL-38 due east launch azimuth revealed by the Air Force 45th Space Wing confirms that the mission is most likely an SDS going to geosynchronous transfer orbit.

That will be definitively confirmed by numerous highly experienced civilian trackers that originally began collaborating 50 yr. ago under the “Kettering Group” named after the British school where students under science teacher the late Geoffrey E. Perry began exposing space secrets using their own math skills.

Molczan for the last 10 years has been coordinating the SeeSat-L web site that now leads many such civilian space trackers.

Analysis of the trajectory and newly released post satellite separation data indicates the secret satellite was released in about a 170 x 23,300 mi. transfer orbit. The spacecraft’s own thrusters will be used to raise it to circular geosynchronous orbit. Other analysts calculate the transfer orbit will have a lower apogee, but with the same result later.

Six previous SDS 3 model spacecraft have been launched since 1998. This new spacecraft is likely bound for a parking spot at 144 deg. W Long. to replace the an earlier SDS spacecraft launched by an Atlas IIAS rocket in October 2001.

Out of the 50 EELV flights,  31 have been Atlas Vs with 15 using no solid rocket boosters like today’s flight.

This image shows the earlier Block II version of the SDS spacecraft that was launched this morning. Image Credit: NRO


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