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ULA prepares to send classified NROL-55 spacecraft to orbit

NROL-55 payload fairing for United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California photo credit ULA

United Launch Alliance is preparing one of its Atlas V 401 rockets to launch the classified NROL-55 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office. Photo Credit: ULA

United Launch Alliance (ULA) is preparing to place a payload into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The classified NROL-55 mission is set to take to the skies on Thursday, Oct. 8, from Vandenberg Air Force Base located in California at 5:49 a.m. PDT (8:49 am EDT). While the primary payload for this mission is unknown, another aspect of the flight has had details of it released to the media.

The mission will get its start from Space Launch Complex 3 (SLC-3), located at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Atlas V 401 payload fairing for National Reconnaissance Office NROl-55 spacecraft. United Launch Alliance photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

The NROL-55 spacecraft is transported out to Vandenberg’s SLC-3 in this ULA image. Photo Credit: United Launch Alliance

The payload was originally scheduled for an Aug. 27 launch, but it has been delayed twice. Weather for this launch looks to be holding with a 70 percent chance of favorable conditions and no technical issues have been reported at this time.

As noted, the payload is a classified satellite for the NRO so there are not a lot of details available about the spacecraft. It is part of the “L” series of reconnaissance satellites.

The NRO also oversees the design, building and operations of all of its space assets. Additionally the organization provides satellite information to other government agencies including signals intelligence (SIGINT) to the National Security Agency (NSA) as well as imagery intelligence (IMINT) to the  National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

The launch vehicle for this mission is the Atlas V 401. This flight marks the 58th flight of an Atlas V since the vehicle was first flown in 2002. The 401 variant of the Atlas V has no strap on Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-60A solid boosters in the configuration. Additionally the upper stage uses a single, RL-10C rocket engine in its Centaur upper stage and has a four-meter fairing that will protect the payload as it makes its way out of Earth’s atmosphere.

The rocket’s core stage employs a single, Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine in its first stage. Although outward appearances suggest the Atlas V has two engines, it only has one – but two nozzles to direct the engine’s thrust. The RD-180 is produced by NPO Energomash.

The Atlas V enjoys a track record that few other launch vehicles can match – a virtual 100 percent success rate (with a partial failure due to the Centaur Upper Stage occurring in 2007).

In addition to the NRO payload, the vehicle is also carrying 13 CubeSats for the NRO and other organizations. There are nine NRO-sponsored CubeSats, with NASA sponsoring the other four. These payloads are part of the NRO’s Government Rideshare Advanced Concepts Experiment (GRACE) auxiliary payload. These CubeSats will be stowed on the Aft Bulkhead Carrier (ABC) which is part of the Centaur upper stage.

The CubeSats sponsored by the NRO include the following: Aerospace Corporation (AeroCube-5c and AeroCube-7), the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Center (SNaP-3), Tyvak (PropCube), and SRI International (SINOD-D).

The GRACE NASA-sponsored CubeSats were developed by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (ARC-1), Salish Kootenai College (BisonSat), AMSAT (AMSAT Fox-1), and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (LMRST-Sat).

This will be the 101st mission that ULA will undertake since its formation in 2006. The Colorado-based company was formed from elements of both Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s launch services.

NROL-55 National Reconnaissance Office art for classified satellite image credit ULA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: ULA


Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.

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