After a weather delay just long enough to push the launch window into the drama of rockets blazing across the night sky, the United Launch Alliance successfully send CLIO into orbit tonight. If you're wondering what CLIO is, you're not the only one.

Top image: It took braving swarms of bugs to capture the fiery trail of the rocket's launch, but if the fireflies know what CLIO is, they aren't telling. Image credit: Pilar

Advertisement

What is CLIO? It's larger than a breadbox, but fits within a 4-meter diameter payload shroud. Image credit: ULA

Advertisement

About the only thing we know about the clandestine CLIO payload is that it's something for the United States government, it was built by Lockheed Martin, and it has a hashtag. As for what it is, what it does, who operates it, or what part of the government claims responsibility for it: no idea, and if you do know, you'll probably get in trouble for telling us.

Advertisement

The mission art suggest that CLIO enjoys sunsets, long walks on the beach, and decorative copper-plating. Image credit: NASA

We also know that whatever the payload is, it hitched a ride into orbit on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Considering the rocket has been used for 49 launches with 25 launches in this 401 configuration (common first stage, no solid rocket boosters, cryogenic single-engine Centaur upper stage), that isn't really limited the options much.

Advertisement

The launch window opened at 5:44 pm EDT on Tuesday, but was delayed by unfriendly weather. Apparently where ever it is that CLIO needs to go has forgiving enough orbital mechanics for a generous 2-hour, 26 minute launch window. That's a very good thing, as the threat of lightning, cumulus clouds, an attached anvil cloud, and a surface electric field mill all kept the unspecified payload on the pad until nearly the of the window. The rocket finally launched at 8:10 pm in a flare of fire and glory, carrying CLIO up, up, and away.

Advertisement

The weather was a No-Go on four different criteria leading up to the start of the launch window. Screenshot of ULA live-feed by @ShuttleAlmanac.

Advertisement

You can read the details of the flight plan here, and play-by-play updates here. The short version is that after getting out of the atmosphere, the rockets fell quiet for two-and-a-half hours of coasting, before a final bit of explosive roaring to circularize the orbit and tuck CLIO into whatever its final, undisclosed position is.

Advertisement

Atlas V bringing the mysterious CLIO to new heights. Image credit: ULA

The facts dealt with, it's time for some speculation on this secretive spacecraft! Some ideas raised by SpaceFlight Now and their active forum of space enthusiasts are:

  • Lockheed Martin previously built clandestine spacecraft PAN for an unspecified US government client, using a commercial provider to drop it into a orbit about 5 years ago.Whatever PAN was, CLIO may be more of the same.
  • CLIO is using the Lockheed Martin A2100 satellite framework as a base, which has an expected lifespan of around 15 years. Somewhere over 40 A2100 satellites are currently in orbit.
  • The launch profile for CLIO is similar to that of PAN, except the first burn and coast are longer, the second burn is shorter. PAN changed geostationary orbits unusually frequently, and is currently hanging out over eastern Africa. If CLIO is dropped into a geostationary orbit, it'll be farther south than normal equatorial orbits, putting it at an incline.
  • It could be joining the US secure communication constellations: Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) running strategic communications; Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) running mobile, deployed, and battlefield communications; Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) running Navy communications, particularly for ships, submarines, and aircraft; or Satellite Data System (SDS) running National Reconnaissance Office communications. As all those constellations are publicly-acknowledged, it'd be puzzling for them to not claim CLIO.
  • CLIO may be a replacement for the Department of Defense communications satellite AMC-14 that was dropped in a bad orbit in 2008, as burning excess fuel to get it into the correct location likely reduced its 15-year life expectancy.
  • CLIO may be joining known and alleged constellations spying on everyone else's satellites, monitoring where they are, and what sort of data they transmit and receive. That was the alleged mission of the 1990 Prowler satellite. It's the explicit mission of the ongoing Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) to track geostationary satellites, while Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) tracks low Earth orbit satellites .
  • CLIO's projected final orbit may be low for a geostationary satellite, placing it instead in an inclined near-equatorial medium Earth. If so, it's function will be even more puzzling. It'd be almost semi-synchronous, similar to GPS orbits where the satellite loops the planet twice a day.

Advertisement

While no one is saying what CLIO's final orbit will be, civilian satellite-watchers will probably be able to figure it out before too long. As for what it does? We might not know for ages.

Advertisement

What mysteries did the Atlas V rocket contain while awaiting liftoff on Cape Canaveral Complex-41? Image credit: ULA

Check out more beautiful photographs of the night launch at Florida Today.

Advertisement