Atlas-V NRO-79 Intruder Mission Readied For Wednesday Launch To Track Ships

The mission patch for the NRO 79 satellites has a woman warrior with an owl-eye “modification” and a Medusa shield to carry out “Victory With Intelligence” in Latin on the shield. Credit: NRO

The U.S. Air Force’s 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg AFB Calif., along with United Launch Alliance (ULA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), are poised for the planned March 1 launch of the NRO-79 mission carrying the Intruder 8 Ocean Surveillance satellite payload on board an Atlas-V 401 rocket.

The launch period for the secret payload runs for 60 minutes between 9:30-10:30 a.m. PST, (12:30-1:30 p.m. EST), with liftoff of the 191 ft. tall rocket (with no solids) occurring sometime within that period from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex-3 East. 

Tune in tomorrow for our LIVE COVERAGE of the countdown preparations, live webcast from ULA will begin at 9:30 a.m. PST (12:30 p.m. EST). Social media hashtags #NROL79 and #AtlasV.

A previous ULA Atlas V 401 with no solid boosters lifts off from Vandenberg AFB Calif SLC 3 East just as the NRO 79 mission is poised to do March 1. Credit: ULA

Atlas-V Intruder missions normally carry two spacecraft that fly in formation to track global ship movements, especially warships from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

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. Russian rocket engineers are routinely at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or Vandenberg AFB, to monitor their engine’s performance parameters from a sealed computer room.

NRO 79 will mark the 70th ULA Atlas-V launch, and the 35th in the 401 configuration since the rocket’s inaugural mission in 2002. This is the first Intruder mission since Oct. 8 2015, which also launched into polar orbit from Vandenberg.

The Atlas V, with an 860,000 lb. thrust Russian Energomash RD-180 oxygen/kerosene engine, will fly on a southern trajectory along the Pacific coast of California and Mexico, past South America and over Antarctica early in its first orbit.

The spacecraft are likely to 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 older National Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS) spacecraft.

Because it is a secret mission, the only ascent milestones called out publicly during the launch will be RD-180 cutoff and first stage separation 4 minutes into the flight, followed by Centaur upper stage ignition at 4 min. 22 sec and nose shroud separation at 4 min 31 sec. into the flight.

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, Molczan said earlier (see AmericaSpace report Oct. 7, 2015).

The pairs of NOSS satellites fly in formation dozens of miles apart laterally and with the second satellite in trail of the first.

This is so electronic emissions 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.

Following the ocean surveillance mission there are 9 more military and intelligence flights, including three NRO missions, spread through the rest of the 2017 launch calendar.

They are:

  • March 8: At the Cape where a ULA Delta IV with 4 solid boosters is to launch the Air Force WGS-9 Wideband Global Satcom.
  • June 13:  At VAFB where a ULA Atlas V 541 with 4 solid boosters will launch the NRO 42 Trumpet electronic eavesdropping  spacecraft with a huge umbrella antenna.
Top Secret NRO Trumpet / Orion type eavesdropping satellite with redacted labels has giant parasol antenna rising from bus with smaller antennas. The NRO 42 mission from Vandenberg on an Atlas V 541 mission is set to launch such a satellite June 13. Image Credit: The Space Review
  • June 22: At the Cape where an Atlas V 531 with 3 solid boosters will launch a Lockheed Martin AEHF Advanced Extremely High Frequency Satellite.
  • July 15:  At the Cape where an Orbital ATK Minotaur 4 booster will launch the SensorSat spacecraft into equatorial orbit to scan the geosynchronous orbit band above for space debris and unknown satellites.
  • August 31: At the Cape where an Atlas V with 2 solid boosters is to launch the NRO 52 mission, a Quasar satellite data system type satellite to relay highly classified data and communications to the ground from NRO intelligence satellites.
  • Third Quarter: At the Cape where the planned second flight of the Space X triple-body Falcon Heavy off Launch Complex 39A is to launch a large group of Air Force Space Test Program satellites.
  • October: On a VAFB date yet to be set, a Delta IV booster with twin solid boosters is to launch a Lockheed Martin/USAF Topaz imaging radar satellite.
  • Nov. 9: At the Cape where an Atlas V 411 with a single solid is to launch the USAF SBIRS Geo 4 Space Based Infrared Satellite.
  • December: At the Cape on a date yet to be determined, a Delta IV with two solid boosters is to launch the first USAF GPS-3 advanced navigation satellite, ending military launch operations for 2017.


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Vandenberg Atlas-V Lofts NRO-79 Ocean Surveillance Satellites