UPDATE: NRO-37 will attempt to launch again on Saturday at 1:51pm EDT. The first launch attempt June 9 was scrubbed due to weather violations.
Story published originally June 8: The biggest spacecraft in the world—a top secret multi-billion dollar National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Mentor/Advanced Orion eavesdropping satellite—is ready for launch from Cape Canaveral AFS as soon as June 9 at 1:59 pm EDT, on board the most powerful operational rocket in the world, a$375 million United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy.
Carrying a mammoth eavesdropping antenna spanning 330 feet, the Mentors “are the largest satellites ever launched,” said Air Force 4-star Gen. Bruce Carlson (ret), who headed NRO from 2009-2012.
The nearly 6-ton NRO 37 Mentor/Advanced Orion spacecraft being launched is a Crown Jewel of America’s top secret intelligence satellite operations. This is because of its importance to national security from its signals and electronic intelligence intercepts for the National Security Agency (NSA); Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA); and for Army, Navy, Air Force, and National Command Authority intelligence operations.
Local and national news media will briefly cover (or not cover) the NRO 37 mission as if it is a routine shot. But this over $2 billion mission is far from routine.
FOLLOW our on-site reporting and NRO 37 Launch Tracker for regular updates, as well as LIVE coverage on launch day.
The Mentor/Advanced Orion spacecraft provides unique and vitally important intelligence by listening to Middle Eastern Adversaries, such as ISIS, and political and military officials in China, North Korea, Russia, and other countries.
The satellite will also listen-in to telemetry from foreign missile tests, especially key intelligence from North Korea, China, and Russia, which are all developing multiple new missiles with which to threaten the U.S. on land, sea, and in the air.
The NRO long ago developed the ability to listen to Chinese and Soviet/Russian leaders in their offices and cars. But as technology has advanced such eavesdropping has become far more complex. Much of the intelligence received is coded, requiring extensive efforts at NSA to break it.
In addition to its intelligence data, the NRO Mentor and ULA/USAF Delta-IV Heavy programs fund hundreds of ULA jobs across the U.S. and at the Cape’s 45th Space Wing. In fact the Delta-IV Heavy rocket was developed primarily for launching advanced Mentor/Orion spacecraft directly into geosynchronous orbit. It also launches advanced Crystal KH-11 type digital imaging satellites into medium altitude polar orbits.
Locally, the Harris Corp. in Melbourne, Fla., has received hundreds of millions of dollars in NRO funding for the football field-sized dish antenna on each Mentor/Advanced Orion spacecraft. So far eight Orion and Advanced Orion Mentors have been launched carrying the huge Harris antennas. These Harris antennas involve some of the country’s most advanced highly protected technologies.
The prime contractor for previous versions of the Advanced Orion/Mentor spacecraft was TRW/Northrop Grumman Corp. (NGC), and it is likely NGC remains the lead contractor.
The weather for a Thursday launch attempt is predicted to be 60 percent unfavorable, with clouds and thunderstorms a possibility throughout the day. If weather or technical issues force tomorrow’s launch to be scrubbed, the next opportunity to launch the NRO mission will come Saturday, June 11.
The Delta-IV Heavy NRO 37 mission will lift off on 2 million pounds of thrust, generated from its three RS-68A engines in the triple core launcher.
They will propel the Delta-IV Heavy off Launch Complex 37B on a trajectory that will place the satellite directly into geosynchronous orbit. That location remains secret, but it will join three other Mentor/Advanced Orions launched by Delta-IV Heavies since 2009.
At liftoff Each oxygen/hydrogen powered RS-68A will produce 705,000 lbs thrust—30 percent more than each Space Shuttle Main Engine generated.
The launch milestone chart below shows the approximate timing of NRO-37 ascent milestones, including the three burns by the Delta IV Heavy’s upper stage powered by a 25,000 lb-thrust RL-10-B-2 engine.
The exact ascent milestones must remain secret to avoid Russian and Chinese precision tracking. But the chart was originally prepared for the Initial Delta IV Heavy flight test with the initial RS-68 versions. It uses a two burn upper stage test profile.
Calculations by world renowned military space analyst Ted Molczan in Canada show the expected altitudes for each upper stage maneuver:
—Initial second stage engine cutoff is predicted to result in a 190 x 244 Km. (118 x 151 mi.) orbit .
—Second upper stage cutoff orbit is predicted by Molczan to be in orbit at 212 x 35,809 km. (132 x 22,250 mi.).
—Third upper stage burn is predicted to achieve a 35,746 (22,211 mi.) geosynchronous orbit.
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