Atlas Launches (Secret) NRO Payload

On Friday, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, carrying a pair of top-secret spy satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The NRO designs, builds and operates America’s reconnaissance satellites. According to their website:

The NRO is guided by its vision of being Freedom’s Sentinel in Space: One Team, Revolutionizing Global Reconnaissance. Our Mission: The NRO develops and operates unique and innovative overhead reconnaissance systems and conducts intelligence related activities essential for U.S. National Security.

We’ve uploaded video of the launch:

And here’s a rather beautiful clip of the rocket in the Centaur stage:

One minor glitch: the satellites initially ended up in the wrong orbit:

Two top secret National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) ocean surveillance spacecraft were fired into the wrong orbit June 15 when the 200-foot-tall Atlas V rocket they were riding on stopped firing too early in space following launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The top secret satellites separated safely from the malfunctioning booster, however, and have enough rocket propellant to continue their mission, an official said on background.

The U.S. Air Force, which managed the Atlas V launch, and the NRO have begun an official investigation into the launch and malfunction. The $83 million Atlas V used in the launch is a model 401 with no solid rocket boosters.

"The Atlas V people have a lot of explaining to do," the official said on background. The flight was the first NRO secret mission for the new Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle.

The two spacecraft are critical to tracking ships that may conceal al Qaeda terrorists. The new spacecraft will also track Iranian and Chinese sea-based military operations.

The Lockheed Martin website has a nice diagram of the Atlas V 400 series. The Atlas is used extensively to lift satellites for the U.S. Air Force and other government customers. In fact, the manifest is so full manifest of government projects that  commercial launches are increasingly going to Kazakhstan and French Guiana. 

The NRO also has a website for children; and for those of us adults with a child-like fascination with all things space, be sure to check out this article from Wired, which covers spy satellites — and the amateurs who look for them.