Two secret National Reconnaissance Office/U.S. Navy ocean surveillance satellites are set for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Ca. Oct. 8 on the NRO-55 flight that will also deploy 13 advanced technology CubeSats.
The military space mission is planned for liftoff from Space Launch Complex-3E at 5:49 a.m. PDT (8:49 a.m. EDT) on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V 401 launch vehicle with no solid rocket boosters. The launch window is expected to run until 6:30 a.m. PDT.
Bookmark our “NROL-55 Launch Tracker” for regular updates and LIVE COVERAGE on Oct. 8 beginning at 5:29 a.m. PDT.
As with all NRO Atlas-V flights the highly classified intelligence payload will be propelled to orbit by an 860,000 lb. thrust Russian Energomash RD-180 engine, which continues to raise concern within the Air Force and Atlas-V users like the NRO.
The flight is also carrying 9 NRO and 4 NASA CubeSats mounted in a deployment box on the aft end of the Centaur upper stage.
The 15 satellites in total will be deployed into a 1,000 x 1,200 km. (621 x 745) mile orbit, inclined 63.4 degrees to the equator.
The two NRO satellites weigh nearly 4 tons each.
The mission is to replace two similar National Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS) spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral on Feb 3, 2005 on the final Atlas-III rocket before the shift to the Atlas-V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV).
The first generation of U.S. Naval Research Center NOSS satellites were launched in groups of three starting in 1976, according to Ted Molczan, an expert Canadian astrodynamist. A second generation of triple spacecraft missions was active during the 80s and 90s, followed in 2001 by the start of third generation spacecraft launch in pairs instead of triplets, said Molczan.
The pairs of NOSS satellites fly in a “space combat spread” type formation dozens of miles apart laterally and with the second satellite in trail of the first. This is so radio transmissions from ships reach the satellites at different times enabling a constant track of a ship’s direction and speed. It allows the Navy’s top secret ship tracking intelligence center to track the position and intentions of ships of every nationality around the globe.
The NRO/NASA CubeSats are being flown on NRO-55 under the Government Rideshare Advanced Concepts (GRACE) experiment, which on this mission involves 9 NRO and 4 NASA advanced technology satellites.
They are all mounted in a Naval Post Graduate School deployment box mounted to the aft bulkhead of the rocket’s Centaur upper stage.
The NRO CubeSats are:
– AeroCube-5C and AeroCube-7: Developed by the Aerospace Corp., these two 3 lb. satellites will demonstrate tracking technologies, optical communications and laser communications.
– SNaP-3: Developed by the Army Space and Missile Defense Center involves three CubeSats each nearly 10 lb. in mass. They are to develop user-software defined radios to provide line of sight communications for disadvantage users in remote areas.
– PropCube: Developed by Tyvak Nano Satellite Systems LLC, the two 2 lb. CubeSats will perform dual frequency ionospheric calibration measurements.
– SINOD-D: Developed by SRI, the two 4.5 lb. CubeSats will demonstrate software defined radio communications.
The NASA sponsored CubeSats are:
– ARC-1: The 2.2 lb. Alaska Research CubeSat-1, developed by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, will measure its own thermal and vibration environment during launch and also increase the technology readiness level on its attitude control determination system, as well as its high bandwidth communications system.
– BisonSat: Under development for 4 yrs. at Montana’s Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Indian Reservation, the 2.2 lb. satellite has been training students on the design, construction, test and operation of space hardware by using a specially designed camera to calculate land cover classification, cloud cover, and cloud height measurements.
– AMSAT Fox-1: Developed by the AMSAT Corp., the 2.2 lb. satellite has an FM amateur radio voice repeater that will provide easy portable satellite communications opportunities for amateur radio operators world wide. The satellite will also test a micro electro mechanical (MEMS) gyro and a low energy proton experiment.
– LMRST-Sat: Developed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory the 6.6 lb. Low Mass Radio Transponder Satellite will demonstrate the transponder in Earth orbit to raise its technology readiness level.
NROL-55 will be the 58th Atlas-V mission for ULA since the vehicle’s inaugural launch in 2002. The mission is ULA’s 10th of 2015 and 101st since the company was founded in December 2006.
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