Is a launch still clandestine if everyone sees it? Apparently so, as the launch of a secretive payload out on Friday was seen across southern California, yet was totally successful. What the latest secret satellite will do is up for debate, but it has an excellent mission patch.
Top image: Long exposure of the NROL-35 launch out of Vandenberg Airforce Base as seen from San Diego. Credit: Kevin Baird
The launch, NROL-35, was a classified flight by the National Reconnaissance Office to deliver a satellite into orbit. The rocket was run by United Launch Alliance, an Atlas V flying with a new upper stage that made it the most powerful rocket to launch from the west coast.
Gantry retracted from the Atlas V prior to launch. Image credit: United Launch Alliance
The rocket was fuelled and and good to go for a Thursday evening launch when the storms rolled in. Instead of even continuing the countdown, officials decided that the forecast deluge of rain, wind, and even lightning on the south coast wasn't worth pretending that the skies would settle down enough to stop violating weather rules. This is the first time in 17 Atlas launches since 2012 that the launch was scrubbed after the rocket was fuelled and the countdown initiated.
Atlas V rocket launching at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Image credit: Pat Corkery/United Launch Alliance
The launch was rescheduled for Friday, originally for a target time of 7:13 pm. The launch window duration was classified, but the launch time slipped back to 7:19 pm without fuss.
That doesn't tell us too much about the intended orbit except that it isn't very complicated or the payload has the fuel to adjust as-necessary.
An Atlas V rocket in the 541 configuration on the pad and ready to launch NROL-35. Image credit: United Launch Alliance
After the one-day scrub-and-reset and the six-minute launch delay, everything else appears to have gone perfectly. At least, it seems that way: a pre-arranged news blackout took over once the payload shroud was jettisoned at 7:22 pm, hiding real-time tracking of the ascent, upper stage firing, and payload release (of course, amateur video is always available). Two hours later, United Launch Alliance was announcing mission success, so whatever it was, it went well enough.
The classified payload en route to the rocket. Image credit: United Launch Alliance
We don't know much about the payload for NROL-35:
- It is a satellite.
- Its mission patch is a stormy trident-fireball lady in elegant purple and black.
- It fits inside a freaking massive payload fairing, and can be lifted into orbit by a rocket capable of producing 2 million pounds of thrust at launch.
The mission patches from the National Reconnaissance Office are all kinds of amazing — they're the organization that produced the globe-strangling octopus last year, along with a tiger threatening to claw the planet apart, powerful mythological creatures doing mysterious things, and even a rocket-devil hybrid. While sometimes they screw up and give something away, for the most part the patches are utterly independent of what the mission is actually about beyond something kick-ass cool and undefined.
That's it for what we know about the payload. Gossiping about what we don't know is totally fair game. NASASpaceflight suspects the satellite is going into a Molniya orbit, a highly elliptical trajectory with a period of 12 hours. This makes sense for something launching out of Vandenberg as opposed to the equatorial orbits more common for things launching out of Cape Canaveral.
The payload is probably either a communications satellite, or a signals-intelligence satellite. Communications is a bit less likely, as the Quasar satellites can be launched with far weaker rockets (Atlas V in a 401 configuration, or a Delta IV Medium).
SpaceflightNow is speculating the payload may be a Trumpet, an electronic signals intelligence-gathering satellite. The last Trumpet satellite was launched using slightly lighter rockets (Atlast V in a 411 configuration, or a Delta IV Medium), but that was long enough ago that technological upgrades and heftier antenna could account for the weight-difference. Zarya suspects it may be a missile launch sniffer using SBIRS, the Space Based Infrared System.
Even if it doesn't set itself on fire, the Atlas V is still a very impressive rocket when it launches. Credit: Pat Corkery/United Launch Alliance
The new engine for the Centaur upper stage for the Atlas V is an RL10C, converted from an RL10B engine. The RL10B is the upper stage used by Delta IV rockets, so the change is an economic choice to somewhat standardize across the rockets, and to use more of the stockpiled engine parts as ULA has been launching fewer Delta IVs. The rockets are surprisingly similar in capacity: while the Delta IV-Heavy that carried the Orion mission produces 2.1 million pounds of thrust, the new Atlas V-541 configuration isn't far behind, producing about 2 million pounds of thrust (even if it lacks the drama of self-igniting during launch). The last time the Atlas V-541 configuration launched, it was to boost the Curiosity rover to Mars in 2011, and for another classified launch, NRO-67, earlier this year.
Atlas Vs have been launching out of Vandenberg for years — this was the 10th launch since 2008. The Space Launch Complex 3-East pad was modified in 2004 and 2005 to handle the massive rockets. The modifications included extending the mobile service tower, deepening the exhaust ducts, installing a new, hefty Fixed Launch Platform, and updating assorted control, command, and communication systems and centers.
Long exposure of the NROL-35 launch as seen from the Vandenberg press area. Image credit: Gene Blevins/LA Daily News
With a southern California launch on a clear night during a meteor shower, it's unsurprising the rocket's fiery trail was visible in Hollywood. That doesn't make it any less fun to see locals who likely don't make a habit of penciling secretive satellite launches into their agendas noticing something a bit unusual going on:
The source of that mysterious fireball. Image credit: United Launch Alliance