United Launch Alliance Rocket Puts US Spy Satellite Into Orbit
August 29, 2013

United Launch Alliance Rocket Puts US Spy Satellite Into Orbit

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A top secret payload was launched from a Delta IV Heavy rocket on Wednesday morning. The rocket lifted off at 11:03 am PDT from the Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) in California, carrying a US spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

Officials at United Launch Alliance said the rocket launch was successful, despite a ten minute delay due to minor issues.

“We are truly honored to deliver this critical asset to orbit,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president for the Atlas and Delta programs. “I congratulate the combined NRO, Air Force, ULA, and supplier team on today’s successful launch of the NROL-65 mission.”

Little is known about the NROL-65 satellite, as it is considered classified. What is known is that the satellite is part of a team of US intelligence-gathering satellites overseen by the NRO and will be put into low-Earth orbit.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the top secret payload is thought to be "a $1-billion high-powered spy satellite capable of snapping pictures detailed enough to distinguish the make and model of an automobile hundreds of miles below."

This is the first of two such launches scheduled for late 2013, NRO Director Betty Sapp told a congressional committee earlier this year. It is the second launch of a Delta IV Heavy rocket at the facility. The first was in January 2011.

VAFB has been reserved for the US’s military space project launches for more than 50 years. The site has been hosting spy satellite launches since the beginning of the Cold War due to its ideal location for putting satellites into a north-to-south orbit.

Space Launch Complex 6 was built in the 1960s and was later intended for Space Shuttle launches, but that never materialized. The base has now spent some $100 million renovating the launch facility over the past three years to continue its military missions.

The Delta IV Heavy rocket was built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. It first flew in 2004 and is capable of lifting payloads of up to 24 tons into low-Earth orbit. ULA provides space launch services for the federal government with both the Atlas and Delta rocket programs.