NROL-42 classified surveillance satellite set to launch
A secretive National Reconnaissance Office satellite, NROL-42, is poised to launch from Space Launch Complex-3 (SLC-3) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Thursday, September 21, 2017.
United Launch Alliance (ULA) will provide the launch services using their Atlas V rocket. This will be ULA’s sixth launch of 2017 with four of the previous flights having also used the Atlas V, and the other one utilizing the Delta IV launch vehicle.
This will be the 25th time ULA has provided launch services for the National Reconnaissance Office since its inception in 1961.
“This launch is a prime example of teamwork by multiple organizations that have worked around the clock to assure mission safety and security,” said Lt. Col. Kenneth Decker, 4th Space Launch Squadron commander via a U.S. Air Force release. “Given the dedication of the men and women have worked to ensure readiness of the launch vehicle and payload, we’re on track for a successful launch.”
For this mission, the Atlas V will fly in the “541” configuration using a 5.4-meter fairing, 4 solid rocket boosters, and a single Centaur engine upper stage. In this configuration, the vehicle will produce some 2.4 million pounds-force (10,580 kN) of thrust at liftoff and can carry a maximum payload of 18,270 pounds (8,290 kg) to a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).
While the payload is classified, it is rumored to be a signal collecting surveillance satellite, Trumpet Follow On 2. In addition, it will possibly have a secondary instrument package – the fourth Space Based Infrared System Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO-4) instrument – on board. The HEO instruments are space-based systems capable of detecting missile launches that occur in Northern Latitudes.
The suggested target orbit of 63 degrees inclination, with an apogee of 24,000 miles (38,620 km) and perigee of 1,000 miles (1,610 km), would put it in what is known as a Molniya orbit. Such a highly eccentric orbit, with most of the orbit spent in apogee, provides excellent visibility of the Earth’s northern hemisphere for much of each orbit.
Launch time is scheduled for 10:38 p.m. PDT on September 21 (1:38 a.m. EDT / 05:38 GMT Sept. 22), 2017. This will be the 73rd Atlas V launch since its inaugural fight in 2002.
Colonel Gregory Wood, 30th Space Wing vice commander and the launch decision authority at Vandenberg, said: “This launch is the culmination of many months of work by United Launch Alliance, the National Reconnaissance Office and the 30th Space Wing.
“All of Team Vandenberg is dedicated to mission success and proud to play a part in delivering these capabilities to our nation.”
At L-2 days, the probability of the weather postponing the launch is at 40 percent, with the primary concerns being launch visibility and ground winds.
In the event of a launch scrub and a 24-hour delay, the overall probability of the weather postponing the next launch window is 10 percent, with the primary concern being ground winds.
Lloyd Campbell’s first interest in space began when he was a very young boy in the 1960s with NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. That passion continued in the early 1970s with our continued exploration of our Moon, and was renewed by the Shuttle Program. Having attended the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on its final two missions, STS-131, and STS-133, he began to do more social networking on space and that developed into writing more in-depth articles. Since then he’s attended the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, the agency’s new crew-rated Orion spacecraft on Exploration Flight Test 1, and multiple other uncrewed launches. In addition to writing, Lloyd has also been doing more photography of launches and aviation. He enjoys all aspects of space exploration, both human, and robotic, but his primary passions lie with human exploration and the vehicles, rockets, and other technologies that allow humanity to explore space.