A top secret, 8-ton National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)/Boeing Topaz imaging radar reconnaissance satellite is poised for liftoff Feb. 10 from Space Launch Complex (SLC-6) at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., on an Air Force/United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Medium rocket with two solid rocket boosters.
The planned 3:39 a.m. PST (6:39 a.m. EST) Vandenberg liftoff of the Delta-IV Medium + (5,2)/NROL 45 mission is to come just five days after ULA launched the GPS 2F-12 spacecraft from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas-V 401 booster. The launch window for the Delta-IV 521 radar satellite mission lasts about 90 minutes.
“We have a very busy National Security Space Manifest this year,” said Dr. Walter Lauderdale, a mission director with the Launch Enterprise Systems Directorate at the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) at Los Angeles AFB, Calif.
To illustrate the aggressive pace, Lauderdale noted that during 2016 “there are three pairs of launches where each pair is separated by only a week or less.” That is the case for the new GPS and NROL 45 spacecraft.
The two missions debut a busy year of up to 10 military space missions from both the Cape and Vandenberg in 2016 (see AmericaSpace Feb. 3 2016, report).
The 16,000-lb. size of the radar satellite and its giant Harris antenna requires an unusually large 5 meter (16.4 ft.) diameter payload faring.
The Delta-IV will be fired south to place the radar satellite into about a 680-mile polar “retrograde orbit inclined 123 degrees to the equator,” says Ted Molczan, a Canadian based internationally recognized military space tracking expert. The retrograde or “frozen” polar orbit should ensure the satellite has the same radar look angles of the Earth for every pass over a given target.
The new high-resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) spacecraft was built by Boeing under the NRO’s Project E-305.
The project was to develop a new radar reconnaissance satellite that is smaller and less costly, but with equal or higher resolution than the five 33,000-lb. Lacrosse/Onyx imaging radar satellites launched between 1988 and 2005. The first of those radar spacecraft was launched by the Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-27.
Imaging radars can see at night and through bad weather and can also penetrate foliage. When first designed in the early 1980s the Lacrosse/Onyx spacecraft were built to spot Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks and artillery, as well as camouflaged ballistic missiles.
The roles of high-resolution radar imaging spacecraft (with approximately 1-foot resolutions) have evolved, and they are now used in connection with a number of 3-inch resolution electro optical spacecraft. This provides about a nine spacecraft armada to provide 24-hour, tag-team blanket coverage of high threat areas.
As many as two of the five original Lacrosse/Onyx radar spacecraft remain operational. The early Lacrosse satellites had mesh radar dish antennas spanning 45 feet, but the last Lacrosse launched on the final Titan 3B in 2005 may have more of a giant billboard antenna, Russian ground-based intelligence images reveal.
The project to build a replacement for Lacrosse/Onyx was part of the NRO’s Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program. The spacecraft to be launched Feb. 10 will be the fourth operational FIA radar satellite. The first was launched in September 2010, the second in 2012, and a third in 2013.
The contracts for both the FIA optical and radar spacecraft were awarded to Boeing, which accrued multi-billion dollar cost overruns.
In 2005 the NRO canceled Boeing’s optical spacecraft side of the program, awarding it to Lockheed Martin which had been successfully building such spacecraft since the 1950s. Boeing retained the radar program, however, which had been a Martin Marietta program until the merger with Lockheed.
The FIA program called for at least four operational block 1 Topaz radar spacecraft. It also included one smaller test satellite USA-193 launched in 2006 on a Delta II from Vandenberg, a spacecraft that failed seven seconds after separating from its booster.
That satellite was subsequently shot down as a pseudo test of U.S. ship-based anti-satellite weapons capability ostensibly to protect the public from a several thousand pound ball of frozen hydrazine on board the satellite.
The Feb. 10 launch will be managed by the 4th Space Squadron of the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg.
Once aloft the FIA radars will orbit 180 degrees out of plane from each other but also make near passes of each other as they orbit Earth in a south to north direction.
The mission is one of six launches planned from Vandenberg AFB in 2016. The first flight Jan. 17 was a Falcon 9 carrying the NASA Jason 3 ocean monitoring satellite.
VAFB launches in 2016 following NROL 45 are:
- Mid 2016 Minotaur-C: A solid propellant Minotaur C is to launch the Satellite Imaging Corp. “SkySat” spacecraft, a small commercial digital imaging satellite for Google/Skybox with 0.9-meter Pan resolution; 2-meter multispectral; and 1.1-meter video resolution.
- August and October SpaceX Falcon 9s: The mid-August launch is to carry 10 Iridium mobile communications satellites. This flight is to be followed by an October Falcon 9 launch carrying 10 “Iridium Next” satellites.
- December Atlas V 401: The secret NROL-79 mission is to carry two Intruder ocean surveillance satellites.
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