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Classified NROL-45 mission departs Vandenberg under cover of night

United Launch Alliance Delta IV Medium + 5,2 lifts of from Vandenberg Air Force Base's Space Launch Complex 6 with the NROL-45 mission. Photo Credit: ULA

NROl-45 lifts off from Vandenberg’s SLC-6 on Feb. 10, 2016. Photo Credit: ULA

Marking the second flight to depart from the Western Range in 2016, United Launch Alliance (ULA), sent the NROL-45 mission aloft on a ULA Delta IV Medium+ 5,2 rocket on Wednesday, Feb. 10, from Space Launch Complex 6 located at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Liftoff occurred at 3:39 a.m. PST (11:00 GMT).

Weather conditions at the often-foggy VAFB simply could not have been better, with predictions providing zero percent chances of violating constraints. The same was true for the following day – a day Colorado-based ULA did not need to get the classified payload off the pad at SLC-6 and into the dark skies above.

United Launch Alliance Delta IV Medium + 5,2 lifts of from Vandenberg Air Force Base's Space Launch Complex 6 with the NROL-45 mission. Photo Credit: ULA

Photo Credit: ULA

The 5,2 configuration of the Delta IV Medium means that two Orbital ATK Graphite Epoxy Motor (GEM-60) solid rocket boosters were affixed to the booster’s core stage and that the classified payload required a five-meter fairing.

In terms of the approving authority for this morning’s launch, it appears that everything went off with limited issues.

“This was an incredibly important launch for the 30th Space Wing and our mission partners,” said Col. J. Christopher Moss, 30th Space Wing commander and the launch decision authority. “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 National Reconnaissance Office or “NRO”, formed in 1961, is one of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies and is viewed as being among the top five of this grouping. The NRO is based out of Fairfax County, Virginia – just south of Dulles International Airport.

The Delta IV rocket is designed to be configurable so as to accommodate payloads of different sizes and weight. Available in the Medium, Medium+ (4,2), Medium+ (5,2), Medium+ (5,4), and Heavy (which is essentially 3 Delta IV Medium Common Core boosters strapped together), it has almost exclusively been used for Department of Defense missions.

Launched as part of the U.S. Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, the rocket was powered by all-American systems. From the Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A engine in its Common Booster Core (CBC), the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10B-2 engine with the satellite safely secured in the rocket’s 5-meter-diameter composite payload fairing to the two Orbital ATK GEM-60 solid rocket motors that were attached to the exterior of the CBC – the rocket used U.S. propulsive systems. This fact was highlighted by representatives with one of the providers of these systems.

“A successful launch, like the one today, can only happen with the help of an extremely talented and dedicated team. Congratulations to everyone involved. Simply put, it couldn’t have happened without you,” said Peter Cova, acting vice president of Space Launch Systems at Aerojet Rocketdyne. “Aerojet Rocketdyne looks forward to working with our ULA and U.S. government customers on future launches and placing these highly critical payloads into orbit.”

Two additional NRO missions are currently on the 2016 launch manifest. At present, a Delta IV Heavy is slated to begin the NROL-37 mission on May 12; again from Vandenberg. Then, on June 14, a ULA Atlas V 421 is scheduled to send the NROL-61 mission to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida.

NRO missions are all classified and so next-to-no information about what was sent aloft earlier today. While only the second launch of the year for the aerospace firm, overall it marked the 105th successful flight for the company since it was founded from elements of Boeing and Lockheed Martin in December of 2006.

“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.”

Video courtesy of the 30th Space Wing

Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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