Top Secret NROL-15 Mission Thunders Into Space On Delta IV Heavy

The 235 ft. tall 840 ton Delta IV Heavy carrying the top secret 21 ton National Reconnaissance Office NROL-15 spacecraft roars off Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral on nearly 2.4 million lbs. thrust from its three uprated oxygen/hydrogen RS-68A engines. The U. S. Air Force and NRO especially upgraded these three engines for $200 million specifically for the NROL-15 flight. Photo Credit: Mike Killian for ARES Institute and AmericaSpace.

One of the most secret and  mysterious space flights ever flown by the National Reconnaissance Office is underway with the spectacular launch today of a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy on the NROL-15 mission.

The 235 ft. tall triple-barreled 4H lifted off on nearly 2.4  million lbs. thrust at 9:15 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Four photographers coordinated by AmericaSpace Editor Jason Rhian and armed with the best hand held and “up close” sound activated cameras documented this mysterious NROL-15 mission.

The full sweep of the massive new U. S. Air Force / United Launch Alliance Delta IV facilities at the Cape's Space Launch Complex 37B are rocked by liftoff of the Delta IV Heavy on the NROL-15 mission. During the Apollo project SLC 37 was used by Saturn 1B rockets to test Apollo spacecraft, including the first launch of an unmanned Apollo Lunar Module into space. Photo Credit: Pat Corkery/ ULA

Three times computers halted the countdown inside of T-Minus 4 min. forcing a 3 hr. delay from the originally planned launch time of 6:13 a.m. EDT. The first attempt was halted by a battery voltage alarm that proved false, then by a liquid oxygen fill and drain valve that was slow to close, then one final time when a hydrogen fill and drain valve was also too slow to close on one of outboard oxygen/hydrogen boosters.

The mission, using a unique, souped up version of the world’s most powerful rocket, flew an action packed “James Bond” type mission.

Details emerging from the intelligence community indicate that on this flight the Delta 4 Heavy may not have just launched a special reconnaissance satellite, but in doing so may also be conducting a top secret bait and switch ruse hundreds of miles above Earth. This would be done to conceal the satellite’s true nature and destination from China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia.

Photographed at three mile range, the NROL-15 Delta IV Heavy launches June 29 from massive Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral. Although launched as if on a geosynchronous orbit type mission this highly classified mission may actually be carrying a high resolution imaging Misty stealth satellite going to 40-45 deg. N Lat. and possibly also a decoy satellite going to GEO. Photo Credit: Mike Killian for ARES Institute and AmericaSpace.

The NROL-15 Heavy flew an eastward launch trajectory exactly like that used for non imaging spacecraft being launched to geosynchronous orbit. That is exactly what analysts say U. S. intelligence wants potential adversary countries to believe.

If the sources are wrong it means the Heavy indeed launched a massive new electronic intelligence eavesdropping satellite to geosynchronous orbit.

But,  if they are correct,  it means that this eastward trajectory is part of a ruse to put a 21 ton stealth satellite (awaiting launch for nearly a decade) in a higher latitude imaging reconnaissance orbit to prevent potential adversaries from tracking it from the ground up.

The oxygen / hydrogen engines create pink hued plumes with shock diamonds. The roar from a Delta IV Heavy is Earth shaking, and this one was still thundering over the Cape a full 5 min. after liftoff. Photo Credit: Alan Walters

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 a 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.

No matter what was on board, the launch was a stunning sight, first as the 840 ton rocket carrying 1.46 million lb. of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen ignited on the pad.

The 4H is the only rocket that literally sets itself on fire on the launch pad before liftoff.

The Delta IV ignition fire occurs when hydrogen flowed through the three RS-68A engines is deliberately ignited before full startup. Photo Credit: Alan Walters

After the fireball starts at rocket’s base, the flaming hydrogen engulfs the lower 15 stories of 135 ft. rocket as the initial blast of yellow engine exhaust emerged from the giant duct behind the mobile service structure. Photo Credit: Julian Leek

Brilliant orange flaming hydrogen from the engine start sequence engulfed the vehicle scorching its peach colored insulation black. Watching from 3 mi. away it was hard to tell for a moment whether we were watching a failure or a success.

The rocket’s ground shaking roar reached us as the behemoth cleared its 300 ft. lighting protection towers giving a clear view of beautiful shock diamonds in the high velocity pink hot plumes from the three uprated RS-68A engines developed specifically for this flight for an additional $200 million.

Each RS-68A  produced 705,000 lb. thrust at liftoff quickly rising to  800,000 lb. thrust as the rocket climbed into a vacuum  about 150,000 ft. above the Cape. This was 46,000 lb. more thrust per engine than the standard RS-68s used earlier that each generate 663,000 lb. of liftoff thrust. Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne builds the engines.

Delta IV Heavy umbilical tower and rocket (right) and larger Delta mobile service structure are highlighted by the rising Sun at Cape Canaveral before the highly classified NROL-15 launch at 9:15 a.m. EDT. Photo Credit: Mike Killian for ARES Institute and AmericaSpace.

Amazingly like rolling thunder from a totally clear sky,  the Heavy’s rumble continued to reverberate across Cape Canaveral for a full 5 min. after liftoff  when the Delta IV Heavy was 59 mi. high and 266 mi. downrange.

All three of the common booster core engines powered the vehicle with up to 108% of their rated thrust until at about 4 min. 10 sec. into the flight when the vehicle throttled down and the 15 story tall outer two boosters separated. The center core then throttled back up until it to shut down and separated at about 5 min. 47 sec. into the flight.

The RD-10B-2 oxygen/hydrogen upper stage engine then ignited and continued to propel the vehicle on its secret profile.

United Launch Alliance poster for the NROL-15 launch has a black leopard circling a Delta IV Heavy: Image Credit: ULA

Although ULA did confirm the safe separation of the huge 60 ft. shroud surrounding the payload at 6 min. 46 sec. into the flight,  launch commentary then ceased to further conceal the rocket’s ascent.

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. Experienced analysts believe the NROL-15 mission is likely aimed at specifically defeating Chinese and Iranian countermeasures.

Measures to achieve a Misty disappearing act, so it can function as a true stealth spy satellite must be convincingly achieved starting with launch, says Molczan.

Climbing on nearly 2.4 million lb. thrust the all oxygen / hydrogen 135 ft. core separated its outboard boosters at 4 min. 8 sec. Then shut down and separated the core itself from the upper stage at 5 min. 47 sec. just before upper stage ignition and separation of the 65 ft. tall fairing around the NROL-15 payload..

He proposed two ways that could be done, one of which he believes is already underway with the second stage of the Heavy launched today. They are:


Under this option the Delta IV Heavy is not just carrying the Misty-3 stealth imaging spacecraft,  but also a realistic 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 from Vandenberg on a Titan 4B.

Under this scenario the Heavy just launched on a trajectory used for a routine geosynchronous orbit missions would 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.

The mobile service tower for the launch vehicle was rolled back about 14 hours before launch at sunset June 28. Photo Credit: Jeffrey J. Soulliere.


This option would not use a decoy, but still use the 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 image 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.  Time will tell if either of these options is what is underway with the NROL-15 mission today.

Floodlights illuminate the giant rocket after mobile service tower is rolled back. Photo Credit: Mike Killian for ARES Institute and AmericaSpace.


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  1. Great photos! Would have enjoyed seeing it live, but feel like I have now.

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