Just five days after successfully orbiting the GPS IIF-12 satellite, United Launch Alliance scored another success with the launch of NROL-45 for the National Reconnaissance Office aboard a Delta IV Medium rocket from Space Launch Complex 6 at Vendenberg AFB on the coast of California. Following a trouble-free countdown, Delta blasted into the night sky at 3:40 am PST on a 90 minute top-secret mission supporting the U.S. intelligence community and military assets around the world.
“Congratulations to the ULA team and our U.S. Air Force and NRO partners on the launch of NROL-45,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Custom Services. “This is our second successful launch within five days for our U.S. government customer, a testament to our outstanding teamwork and focus on 100 percent mission success, one launch at a time. ULA is proud to be entrusted with safely and reliably delivering our nation’s most critical space assets to orbit.”
NROL-45 was launched aboard a Delta IV Medium+ (5,2) configuration Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle using a single common booster core (CBC) powered by an Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A main engine along with two Orbital ATK GEM-60 solid rocket motors.
The upper stage was powered by an Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10B-2 engine with the satellite encapsulated in a 5-meter-diameter composite payload fairing. Today’s launch marked only the second time Delta has flown in this particular configuration from Vandenberg.
Today’s mission mrked the 373rd launch of a Delta-family rocket in its history and the 31st Delta IV. Citing cost and competition, United Launch Alliance is in the process of phasing out the Delta IV Medium by the end of 2018. That will leave the Atlas as the medium-lift vehicle of choice until the introduction of ULA’s new rocket, Vulcan, sometime in or after 2019.
The “Heavy” version of Delta IV, with three first stage CBC’s, will continue to be manufactured on an as-needed basis for the NRO’s heaviest payloads for which Atlas and Vulcan lack capability. The next Heavy launch is scheduled for May from Cape Canaveral with the NROL-37 payload for the NRO.
As with previous missions for the National Reconnaissance Office, public commentary ceased about 3 and a half minutes into flight after first stage separation and payload fairing jettison as the vehicle was making what appeared to be a perfect ascent to orbit. Success was confirmed by officials approximately 90 minutes later.
The trajectory that NROL-45 followed into space was somewhat unusual in that Delta took it on a southwestward path into what is known as a retrograde orbit, that is, one which actually tracks against the Earth’s rotation rather than eastward.
Based on the configuration of the rocket and flight path, military observers believe the spacecraft to be the fourth in the FIA Radar series of reconnaissance satellites, also known as Topaz 4.
Topaz spacecraft, the follow-on on to the massive Lacrosse satellites launched by the space shuttle and Titan IV launch vehicles in the 1980’s and early 2000’s, utilize synthetic aperture radar to be able to image targets on the ground, and even underground, in any kind of weather day or night.
If today’s payload was indeed Topaz 4, its intended orbit is around 685 miles high and inclined 123 degrees to the Equator, or 33 degrees west from due south. It is anticipated that amateur and expert satellite observers will be searching the skies for the satellite confirm its orbit.
“This was an incredibly important launch for the 30th Space Wing and our mission partners,” said Moss. “The entire team, which included the 30th Space Wing, the 4th Space Launch Squadron, the National Reconnaissance Office, United Launch Alliance, and numerous other agencies, worked hand-in-hand to ensure this launch was safe and successful. It was a tremendous effort by all involved.”
The next launch this year will be the SES-9 commercial communications satellite on a SpaceX Falcon 9. ULA’s next launch is the Atlas V with the Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 International Space Station resupply mission It is targeted for a March 22 launch from Space Launch Complex-41 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
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