On Thursday, April 10, United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully carried out its 81st mission (and its second in two weeks) with the launch of a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) atop the company’s workhorse Atlas-V rocket. The proven launch vehicle, flying in 541 configuration with a five-meter-diameter payload fairing and four Aerojet Rocketdyne solid rocket motors, came to life and roared out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex-41 at 1:45 p.m. EDT, punching through Florida’s blue skies and delivering NROL-67 as expected.
You can read our in-depth story on the launch and mission HERE.
“We are honored to deliver this national security asset to orbit together with our customers the NRO Office of Space Launch and the Air Force,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs. “Successfully launching two missions from two different coasts in just seven days is a testament to the team’s one-launch-at-a-time focus and ULA’s commitment to mission success and schedule reliability.”
As stated by AmericaSpace writer Ben Evans in his launch story, unknown is the precise nature of NROL-67. According to ULA Launch Commentator Danielle Taylor, the payload was named in honor of the late John “Austin” Wheeler of the National Reconnaissance Office. A clue to its nature may be derived from the use of the heavy-lift Atlas V 541, which has the potential to boost a payload weighing up to 38,455 pounds (17,443 kg) into low-Earth orbit or up to 18,276 pounds (8,290 kg) into geostationary transfer orbit. Before Thursday’s launch, the 541 had been used only once in the history of the Atlas V: to carry NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and the Curiosity rover on the opening leg of their voyage to the Red Planet in November 2011.
As for NROL-67, it can be expected that amateur and professional satellite-spotters will have identified it in orbit, and this may provide a clearer indication of its possible mission objectives. Low-Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit have both been suggested, but Spaceflight101 pointed out that in the former case, due to the large payload capability of the Atlas V 541 to low-Earth orbit, which equates to more than 17 metric tons, “there is no candidate satellite that would match these criteria.” It was also stressed that the recent Notice to Airmen and Mariners (NOTAM) may be indicative of a direct-ascent trajectory into geosynchronous orbit or highly-elliptical “Molniya orbit,” or even that NROL-67 represents an entirely new kind of reconnaissance or Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) satellite.
ULA’s next mission will launch the GPS IIF-6 mission atop a Delta-IV rocket from Cape Canaveral for the United States Air Force as soon as May 15.
BELOW: Photos from the launch of NROL-67. All images copyright Alan Walters and Matt Gaetjens for AmericaSpace, all rights reserved, images may not be used without permission.