ULA Launches Atlas V 501 with classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office
Lighting the California skies with orange flame, a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 501 rocket rose majestically off of Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 3 (SLC-3) at 11:14 p.m. EST. The payload which rode Atlas’ pillar of fame – was the National Reconnaissance Office (NROL-39). How long the launch window was open for was not revealed due to the classified nature of the payload. Besides the NROL-39 satellite some 12 Cubesats from both the NRO and NASA were deployed during this mission.
Everything had been cleared by the Launch Readiness Review board yesterday. Initially, the forecast during the time of the review board’s final decision only provided a 20 percent chance of favorable conditions for launch. Chilly temperatures, possible rain and thick clouds were the primary concern that would have restricted launch. However, by the day of launch, those predictions had improved, providing a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions.
This evening’s launch was the 11th conducted by ULA this year and the 77th the Colorado-based firm has conducted overall. According to information on ULA’s website, this is the second Atlas launch that the company has conducted this year from VAFB as well as the second Atlas launch it has conducted in less than three weeks (the first being the launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN or MAVEN for NASA on Nov. 18 from Cape Canaveral in Florida).
The 501 configuration, which consists of a five meter fairing and a single Centaur engine in its upper stage. This configuration is rarely used, before this evening’s launch, this variant of the Atlas launch vehicle has only taken to the skies four times before. Once with the NRO L-41, the other three times with the U.S. Air Force’s secretive X-37B space plane.
“Today’s successful launch of the NROL-39 mission is a testament to the tremendous government-industry partnership. We greatly appreciate the teamwork with the NRO Office of Space Launch and our many mission partners,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs. “We are honored to be entrusted to launch these one-of-a-kind national assets to orbit to protect our national security and to support the many brave men and women serving around the world.”
The Atlas V employed the Russian-built RD AMROSS RD-180 engine as well as a Centaur upper stage (which utilized a single Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A-4 engine) to accomplish its mission.
“We are pleased we could support the NRO, NASA, and all of the associated institutions by successfully delivering these important auxiliary payloads which will test and validate new technologies for debris mitigation, propulsion, space weather, communications, on-orbit data processing and the use of commercially available components,” said Sponnick.
As mentioned, besides the primary NROL-39 payload, the launch vehicle also delivered the Government Experimental Multi-Satellite (GEMSat), which consists of 12 CubeSats to orbit. This secondary payload was deployed after the primary objective, delivering the NROL-39 spacecraft to orbit, had been accomplished.
The CubeSats were produced under a partnership between the NRO and NASA with several organizations, including the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology, the Aerospace Corporation and the U.S. Army working to produce them. According to a ULA-issued release:
“The five NASA-sponsored CubeSats were developed by Montana State University, California Polytechnic State University, the University of Michigan, and Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.”
Both ULA and the NRO collaborated in the development of the Aft Bulkhead Carrier (ABC) on the Centaur upper stage. Essentially, this device is used to carry the secondary payloads on this flight.
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.