America’s critical intelligence capabilities in geostationary orbit have been doubled with the apparently successful flight of a multi-billion-dollar secret Advanced Orion/Mentor eavesdropping satellite on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on June 11.
The $375-million, 235-ft-tall, 53-ft-wide, 1.6-million-lb, hydrogen/oxygen vehicle lifted off on 2 million lbs thrust, at 1:51 p.m. EDT, after an initial launch attempt was rained out June 9.
U.S. Air Force 45th Space Wing personnel, contractors, the media, and thousands of tourists watching from nearby Kennedy Space Center were rewarded to the spectacular sound and fire show put on by the mammoth rocket.
The triple bodied ULA Delta IV Heavy, with three upgraded Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A engines, carried just the second, more sensitive version of the Mentor made possible by using the more powerful RS-68A engines.
The vehicle is made up of three attached core boosters towering 134 feet, with the middle one forming the base for the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS) with the 25,000-lb thrust Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10B-2 engine that pushes total height to 235 feet.
The RS-68A engines were developed specifically for the launch of heavier Mentor eavesdropping satellite with important new capabilities that must remain secret. But the engine upgrade is now used on all Delta-IV models.
The new engines give the Delta IV Heavy an additional 170,000 lbs of thrust. That is nearly the equivalent of adding two Chrysler/Rocketdyne Redstone boosters at liftoff.
Seven Orion/Mentors have now been launched since 1995, three on the now abandoned Titan IVB/Centaur.
The Northrop Grumman satellite has a Harris mesh antenna spanning about 330 feet. The overall spacecraft was substantially upgraded starting in 2009 with the NRO 26 flight carrying the first “Advanced” Orion/ Mentor. Two of those versions were launched on Delta Heavies.
But starting in June 2012 with the Advanced Orion/ Mentor- NROL-15 launch, the Delta IV Heavies were equipped with the RS-68As, allowing the launch of Mentors with even more maneuvering, life extending, and eavesdropping intelligence capabilities.
This flight, designated National Reconnaissance Office NROL-37, is the second NRO flight with the RS-68As, although the completely different NASA Orion manned spacecraft engineering flight test, flown without a crew in December 2014, used RS- 68As as well.
The NROL 37 mission marked only the 11th flight of the the Delta IV Heavy since the vehicle made an inaugural test flight with a small student payload in December 2004.
Unfortunately, it was a partial failure when a malfunction caused cavitation in the oxygen/hydrogen propellant systems of the triple common boosters, forcing early shutdowns of the three propulsion systems that dove student payloads into the Atlantic.
Here is the sequence of events for the June 11 NROL-37 launch:
—Liftoff with max throttle on all three Common Booster Cores.
—47 seconds at, 3-mile altitude the core throttled down to 54.5 percent throttle while the side mounted cores maintained full thrust.
—-82-85 second maximum dynamic pressure and Mach 1 at 7 -mile altitude. The outboard RS-68s are at full power while the center RS-68A was throttled down to save propellant.
—235 seconds the two outboard cores began to throttle down to 54.5 percent max thrust at 56-mile altitude.
—-242-246 seconds the two outboard engines were shutdown and separated while the core RS-68A was throttled up to the 108 percent power level, where it fired about an an additional 90 seconds before cutoff (MECO) at 328 seconds into the flight, at 111-mile altitude. The fairing was separated just before MECO, after which ULA launch commentary ceased for security reasons.
—-At 337 seconds stage 2 separation was achieved at 123-mile altitude, followed by the first of three burns by its 25,000-lb thrust Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10B-2 engine.
—Initial second stage engine cutoff was predicted to result in a 190 x 244 km (118 x 151 mile) orbit.
—Second upper stage cutoff orbit was predicted by Molczan to be in orbit at 212 x 35,809 km (132 x 22,250 miles).
—Third upper stage burn was predicted to achieve a 35,746 km (22,211 miles) geosynchronous orbit, followed by release of the Mentor. The release position and where the satellite will be parked is classified.
The next NRO Delta-IV Heavy, designated NROL 71, will launch into an Earth-viewing polar orbit from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., in 2018, carrying the most advanced version yet of the original digital imaging KH-11 that first flew in December 1976.
WATCH: NROL 37 Launch from 1.5 Miles / ITL Causeway CCAFS
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