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Atlas V sends classified NROL-79 payload to space

Atlas-V / NROL-79 launch

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying a payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-3. Designated NROL-79, the mission is in support of national defense. Photo & Caption Credit: ULA

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket roared out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. The NROL-79 mission lifted off at 9:49 a.m. PST (12:49 p.m. EST / 17:49 GMT) March 1, 2017, from Space Launch Complex 3E.

Laura Maginnis, vice president, Government Satellite Launch, said: “I am so impressed by the incredible teamwork between the NRO, U.S. Air Force our industry partners and the ULA team that resulted in today’s successful launch. The integrated mission team overcame many challenges this flow including delays associated with the Vandenberg Canyon Fire last year.

“Tragically, Ventura County firefighter Ryan Osler lost his life en route to assist in fighting the fire. We are honored to dedicate today’s mission to Ryan and his family. Thank you to all of the men and women who worked to deliver this critical asset for our nation’s security.”

Atlas-V / NROL-79 launch

Atlas V / NROL-79 launch. Photo Credit: ULA

The launch

The weather for the launch was almost perfect. In fact, some six hours before launch, the probability of weather violation at the time of liftoff decreased to zero percent.

Col. Chris Moss, 30th Space Wing commander, the launch decision authority, said: “This successful launch is the result of outstanding teamwork between members of the 30th Space Wing and our partners at the National Reconnaissance Office and United Launch Alliance. The combined team delivered an important capability for the nation today. It was an exceptional effort.”

Using an Atlas V in the 401 configuration – 4-meter fairing, zero solid rocket motors and a single engine Centaur upper stage – the vehicle lifted off from the launch pad and began to turn toward the south.

The first stage, an Atlas common booster core, was powered by a single Russian-made RD-180 engine. Consuming rocket grade kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen, it produced about 860,000 pounds (3,827 kilonewtons) of thrust. That increased to 933,000 pounds (4,152 kilonewtons) as the vehicle climbed out of Earth’s atmosphere and into the vacuum of space.

About 1 minute, 21 seconds into the flight, as the vehicle surpassed the speed of sound, the Atlas V began to push through the region of maximum stress on the rocket known as max Q.

About two-and-a-half minutes later, some four minutes into the flight, the Atlas common booster core was depleted of fuel and the RD-180 cut out as planned.

At 4 minutes, 9 seconds, the Atlas common booster core separated with the Centaur upper stage. Ten seconds later, its RL10C-1 engine ignited.

Consuming liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, the RL10C-1 engine provided about 22,890 pounds (101.8 kilonewtons) of thrust.

It being a classified mission, at 4 minutes, 27 seconds, once the payload fairing was jettisoned to reveal the payload to space, ULA’s coverage of the mission concluded at the request of the NRO.

“A launch like this requires thousands of hours of activity and practice to execute successfully,” said Lt. Col. Eric Zarybnisky, 4th Space Launch Squadron commander. “Engineers and technicians from my squadron work with members of the United Launch Alliance to ensure a successful launch like this one.”

The payload

Not much is known about the classified payload or what orbit it was being placed in. There has been information suggesting the rocket was carrying a pair of Naval Ocean Surveillance Satellite (NOSS) spacecraft. This would be similar to those that were deployed on NROL-36 and NROL-55, the latter occurring in October 2015.

These spacecraft are also known by their code name of INTRUDER. Together, the pair weighs about 14,330 pounds (6,500 kilograms) and provide intelligence to the NRO and U.S. Navy.

This was the 70th flight of an Atlas V rocket and the 35 in the base 401 configuration since the first launch in 2002. It was the second West Coast launch of the year and ULA’s second flight of 2017.

ULA’s next launch is expected to occur on March 8, 2017, when it launches the Wideband Global SATCOM, or WGS 9, spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37.

The satellite being launched is a communications spacecraft that will serve the U.S. military. The rocket that will be employed for this flight will be a Delta 4 Medium+ (5,4) with a five-meter fairing and four solid rocket motors.

Atlas-V / NROL-79 launch

A National Reconnaissance Office payload on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launches from Space Launch Complex-3, March 1, 2017, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Photo & Caption Credit: Senior Airman Ian Dudley / U.S. Air Force

Video Courtesy of United Launch Alliance





Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

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