The National Reconnaissance Office NRO 76 mission set for liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center early Sunday Apr. 30, could introduce a new or upgraded class of NRO intelligence spacecraft on the first classified mission flown by a SpaceX Falcon 9.
SpaceX was cleared by the Air Force to fly secret military missions in 2015; NROL-76 will be their first.
Details emerging from analysis of the flight by Canadian Ted Molczan, who leads the Seesat spacecraft monitoring organization, indicate the spacecraft may be a low Earth orbit imaging radar like the NRO 21/USA 193 spacecraft that failed shortly after launch from Vandenberg AFB on a Delta II in December 2006.
The freezing of USA-193’s hydrazine propellant into a large ball that could survive an uncontrolled reentry, possibly into a populated area, prompted President Obama to order its shoot down over the Pacific Ocean. That was accomplished in Feb., 2008 by a Standard SA-3 missile fired from the destroyer USS Lake Erie sailing west of Hawaii. The affair also confirmed that the U.S. had an antisatellite (ASAT) weapons capability with the SA-3 based on dozens of destroyers sailing the world’s oceans.
In addition to an imaging radar satellite, Molczan and another military space expert whose name cannot be revealed believe another option for the NRO 76 is a new Satellite Data System (SDS) spacecraft absolutely critical for real time relay to Earth of top secret intelligence imagery and data like that collected by drones and powerful imaging intelligence satellites.
No highly elliptical orbit SDS satellites have been launched by the U.S. in nearly 10 years.
The NRO 76 mission is the 5th SpaceX launch of 2017, and the 33rd flight of a Falcon 9.
The first stage is to be recovered at a Cape landing pad 8 min. 46 sec. after launch, indicating the flight will be a low Earth Orbit Mission leaving enough propellant to not only achieve performance for ignition of the second stage, but also reignite to power the first stage south back to the Cape Canaveral landing zone.
The Falcon 9 liftoff from Launch Complex 39A, on more than 1.7 million lb. thrust from its 9 Merlin engines, will come within a two hour launch period that opens at 7 a.m. EDT and extends to 9 a.m. EDT.
The Air Force’s 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron forecasts an 80% chance of favorable weather, with the only concerns being potentially high liftoff winds and isolated rain showers.
If there is a launch slip to Monday May 1 the forecast drops to a 70% chance of acceptable weather, the concern again being liftoff winds with the potential for heavy clouds.
Key events in the Falcon 9’s countdown and launch are:
T-1 hr. 13 min: Launch readiness poll of the launch team.
T-1hr. 10 min: Loading of RP-1 fuel underway.
T-45 min: Loading of liquid oxygen underway.
T-7 Min: Falcon 9 begins engine chill down.
T-2 min: Air Force Range gives all clear for 1st stage return.
T- 1 min 30 sec: SpaceX calls “Go For Launch”.
T- 60 seconds: Flight computer commanded into final checks.
T-60 seconds: Propellant tanks pressurizing to flight pressure.
T-03 seconds: Engine controller commands “ignition sequence to start”
T-plus 1 min. 8 sec.: Max Q maximum aerodynamic pressure.
T-plus 2 min. 17 sec. First stage shutdown and separation of second stage.
T-plus 2 min. 28 sec. Ignition of 210,000 lb. thrust second stage engine to put NRO 76 satellite in orbit.
T-plus 2 min, 48 sec. fairing separation as first stage executes turnaround to propel itself south back to launch site.
T-plus 7 Min. 9 sec. First stage reentry burn to descend to Cape Canaveral landing site.
T-plus 8 min. 46 sec. first stage landing attempt at Cape Canaveral AFS Landing Zone 1.
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