United Launch Alliance (ULA) is deep into processing for their next mission, following a very successful launch and deployment of NASA’s Rover ‘Perseverance’ to Mars recently on their workhorse Atlas V rocket.
Designated NROL-44, the classified National Reconnaissance Office payload will launch atop ULA’s mammoth 235-foot tall triple-barreled Delta-IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 37B as soon as August 26, and thus far processing has gone quite smoothly, though under a cloak of secrecy with a notably quieter tone than usual.
“The Heavy serves the nation’s high-priority U.S. Space Force and National Reconnaissance Office space programs with distinction as America’s proven heavy-lifter,” said Tony Taliancich, ULA’s launch operations director and general manager.
The NRO has been America’s eyes and ears in space for nearly 60 years.
NROL-44 will mark ULA’s fifth mission of the year, but the first voyage of a Delta rocket in over a year, since the last member of the Delta IV Medium+ fleet launched into well-deserved retirement in August 2019. Flown 11 times between December 2004 and January of last year, the Delta IV Heavy was, until the maiden voyage of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket in active operational service, anywhere in the world.
Capable of lifting up to 57,280 pounds (25,980 kg) to low-Earth orbit and 31,350 pounds (14,220 kg) to geostationary altitude, it has previously launched seven major reconnaissance payloads for the NRO and one Defense Support Program (DSP) infrared early-warning sentinel, together with the Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 of NASA’s Orion spacecraft in December 2014 and, two years ago, the Parker Solar Probe, which will become the fastest spacecraft in history later in its mission around the sun.
The three Common Booster Cores (CBCs) and Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS) for the mission actually arrived in Florida a year ago, and in November the 170-foot-tall (51.8-meter) rocket—minus her payload fairing—was rolled from the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) to the pad atop a 36-wheel, diesel-powered transporter and raised to the vertical. Systems testing filled the next few weeks and on 10 January the Delta IV Heavy was put through a WDR, a practice day-of-launch operation which involved loading all three CBCs with liquid oxygen and hydrogen and counting down through the Terminal Count to a cutoff at T-10 seconds.
With those milestones completed ULA put the rocket to sleep for several months, awaiting the highly secretive payload, which arrived at the beachside launch pad and was mounted atop the Delta IV Heavy on July 27th.
On target for August 26, the unclassified nighttime launch window is quite a long one, from 1:50 to 6:25 a.m. EDT (0550-1025 UTC). If it launches at the end of the window, it should prove to be a spectacular sight in the dawn sunrise sky of Florida’s ‘Space Coast’ (sunrise itself is just before 7am EDT).
“We’re very excited to support National Security by launching the NROL-44 mission for the NRO,” Taliancich said.
– Written by Mike Killian & Ben Evans