A classified top-secret satellite for the U.S. government made its way to space this morning, thundering atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas-V rocket into crystal clear blue skies from Cape Canaveral as expected at 9:05 a.m. EDT. The mission for the National Reconnaissance Office, NROL-33, is shrouded in secrecy, but according to ULA the payload was delivered to its intended orbit as expected.
“Congratulations to all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch of the NROL-33 mission! The ULA team is honored to deliver another critical national security asset to orbit together with the NRO Office of Space Launch and the Air Force,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs. “Today’s launch occurred six days after last week’s GPS IIF-6 launch – the second time this year that this team has launched back-to-back missions within a week. Successfully launching at this tempo is a testament to the team’s focus on mission success, one-launch-at-a-time, and continuous improvement of our launch processes.”
The classified nature of NROL-33, including its destination orbit, carries such sensitivity that today’s launch webcast ended at the moment of the Atlas V payload fairing separation, but the launch vehicle itself—the 401 configuration of the Atlas V—offers up some possibilities for the size and weight of the payload.
Much speculation has abounded that NROL-33 may be an upgraded Satellite Data System (SDS) military telecommunications payload, perhaps bound for geostationary transfer orbit at an altitude of about 22,300 miles. The Air Force began to develop the first-generation SDS-A satellites in 1973 to provide America’s intelligence community with a network of orbiting relays, capable of transmitting real-time data and images from low-orbiting reconnaissance satellites which were out of range of ground stations (another of their responsibilities was to support voice and data communications for covert military activities). This first generation is believed to have been launched between 1976 and 1987, aboard Titan boosters from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The second-generation SDS-B satellites—three of which are thought to have been deployed on the classified shuttle missions STS-28, STS-38, and STS-53 between August 1989 and December 1992—operated in high-apogee and low-perigee orbits, ranging from as low as 300 miles and as high as 23,600 miles, and at steep inclinations which achieved their highest point over the Northern Hemisphere. This enabled them to cover two-thirds of the globe, relay spy satellite data of the entire Soviet land mass, and cover the entire north polar region in support of Air Force communications.
More recently, the third-generation SDS-C satellites are believed to have been aboard several Atlas missions from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since 1998, the most recent being NROL-38, which was lofted aboard an Atlas V 401 in June 2012.
Today’s mission represents the sixth ULA flight in less than four months, and marks the company’s fourth mission in seven weeks (and second mission in six days). Already in 2014, the company—which was formed as part of a merger between Boeing and Lockheed Martin—has delivered NASA’s latest Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-L) into orbit on 24 January, the Global Positioning System (GPS) IIF-5 and 6 satellites in February and on 17 May, and the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP)-19 and classified NROL-67 payload in April.
ULA’s next launch is scheduled to liftoff atop a Delta-II rocket from Vandenburg AFB in July to deliver the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 satellite for NASA.
Article written by AmericaSpace writers Mike Killian and Ben Evans.
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