Spaceflight Insider

ULA launches classified NROL-52 mission for the NRO

ULA Atlas-V / NROL-52 launch

The launch of the ULA Atlas V 421 from Space Launch Complex-41 with the National Reconnaissance Office’s NROL-52. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — With a mighty roar, and after a string of delays, United Launch Alliance (ULA) finally sent the classified NROL-52 mission to orbit on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) at 3:28 a.m. EDT (07:28 GMT) on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017, from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida. The early morning flight marked ULA’s fourth mission of 2017 for the NRO and the sixth flight of the year for the Atlas V.

Weather was the primary concern for this morning's launch with blustery conditions, rain and wind lashing Florida's Space Coast. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

The weather was the primary concern this launch with blustery conditions, rain, and wind lashing Florida’s Space Coast over the past several days. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Government Satellite Launch, said in a ULA press release: “Today’s launch is a testament to the tireless dedication of the ULA team, demonstrating why ULA continues to serve as our nation’s most dependable and successful launch provider.

“After recovering from Hurricane Irma that came through the area last month, and the last week’s weather challenges, the team found the right opportunity today to deliver this critical national asset to orbit.”

Weather worries and a technical glitch

High winds had raked Florida’s Space Coast for several days last week, causing a scrub during two prior launch attempts. On the third attempt, just when the weather appeared to have backed off enough to allow a launch, a telemetry transmitter on the Atlas V launch vehicle required a halt with launch plans.

The booster was rolled back to the Vertical Integration Facility adjacent to SLC-41 where, according to ULA, it was replaced and tested.

The L-1 forecast for the attempt on the day prior only gave a 40 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for launch. With rain and high winds once again rising up, the weather caused the fourth scrub of the mission’s flight.

High winds were one of the issues that delayed this launch. A NASA PDF states that winds at the launch site cannot exceed 33 knots (38 mph / 61 km/h).

The Atlas V 421 rocket

At liftoff, the 191-foot (58-meter) tall rocket generated an estimated 1.6 million pounds-force (7,100 kilonewtons) of thrust: 860,000 lbf (3,827 kN) from the RD-180 engine; 2 × 379,600 lbf (1,688.4 kN) from the AJ-60A boosters.

Atlas-V / NROL-52 launch on October 15, 2017

An Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 with the National Reconnaissance Office’s NROL-52 payload. Photo & Caption Credit: Ben Cooper / ULA

ULA Atlas-V / NROL-52 launch

A close-up view of the Atlas-V 421 engine section. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

The 421 version of the Atlas V (this particular rocket is designated AV-075) uses a 13.8-foot (4.2-meter) wide payload fairing to shield the satellite through Earth’s atmosphere, uses two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-60A solid rocket motors affixed to the rocket’s core stage and has a single RL10C-1 rocket engine in its Centaur upper stage.

Atlas-V / NROL-52 launch on October 15, 2017

The Atlas V / NROL-52 launch. (Click to enlarge) Photo Credit: Jeff Spotts / ULA

The Atlas V utilizes a single Russian-made NPO Energomash RD-180 rocket engine in its core stage, which burned an estimated 73,800 U.S. gallons (280,000 liters) of rocket-grade kerosene, known as RP-1, and liquid oxygen during this morning’s flight.

This core stage of the Atlas V is copper in color and measures 12.5 feet (3.8 meters) in diameter and about 107 feet (32.5 meters) long.

Some of the components of the Atlas V, rather than made from aluminum, are actually composed of carbon fiber which is produced by Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital ATK.

While they might appear tiny alongside the Atlas V’s core stage, each of the side-mounted AJ-60A boosters is actually some 5.2 feet (1.6 meters) wide and 65.5 feet (20 meters) tall. These burned for approximately a minute-and-a-half leaving the core stage to push “uphill” for an additional two minutes and 40 seconds.

Only the first four minutes and 34 seconds of the flight (up until payload fairing separation) will be covered via ULA’s Live Stream. Whatever upper stage burns or the orbit the payload will be delivered to won’t be publicly available due to the mission’s classified nature.

While the exact nature of the NROL-52 payload is not known, it is thought to be the second spacecraft in the fourth generation of the Satellite Data System (SDS). Earlier versions of the SDS operated in a geosynchronous orbit to relay data from surveillance satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO).

The NRO is headquartered out of Chantilly, Virginia, operating an array of satellite constellations that are tasked with providing intelligence-related reconnaissance on behalf of the United States. Some of the organizations that the NRO provides its services to include the Armed Services, the Intelligence Community, the Departments of State, Justice, and others. While it was established in September of 1961, the agency was not publicly acknowledged until 1992.

With growing concerns over North Korean nuclear weapons, the NROs mandate comes into sharper focus as the agency monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, aspects of the illegal drug trade, as well as criminal organizations. Targeting and bomb damage assessments as well as international peacekeeping and humanitarian aid operations are also part of what the NRO handles.

NROL-52 sticker image credit United Launch Alliance

Image Credit: ULA

The Atlas V that flew to orbit this morning has a long and proud heritage, one that can be traced back to the earliest days of the Space Age. The NROL-52 mission marked the 656th Atlas launch since 1957 (and the 359th Atlas launch from the Cape). NROL-52 also marked the 74th launch of the Atlas V since the inaugural flight of the rocket in August 2002. With this morning’s launch, 16 NRO payloads have used the rocket for their ride to space.

“I want to thank the entire ULA team and our mission partners at the NRO and U.S. Air Force who made this, our 26th NRO launch, successful,” said Maginnis.

The mission emblem

The NRO used the occasion to mark the passing of one of their own. Painted onto the payload fairing (the rocket’s nose cone) was a blue mustang with an inscription dedicating it to Terry. SpaceFlight Insider, wanting to find out more about this image, reached out to the NRO and they told us a little about the significance of this dedication.

“The logo is in honor of Mr. Terry Duncan, Director of the Communication Systems Directorate, who recently lost his courageous battle with cancer. Mr. Duncan was a notable Ford Mustang enthusiast, and owned an iconic Ford Mustang,” the NRO told SpaceFlight Insider.

The practice of honoring members of the workforce who have passed away by having their name and images relating to them fly to space is common at ULA and with other launch service providers and space agencies.

About United Launch Alliance

Colorado-based United Launch Alliance was formed in 2006 and is a 50-50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. This partnership of two of the launch industry’s most experienced and successful teams – Atlas and Delta – provides reliable, cost-efficient satellite launch services for the U.S. government, which includes the Department of Defense, NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office, and other organizations.

The company plans to use the Atlas V for a variety of missions which include launching Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser space plane under the second phase of the space agency’s Commercial Resupply Services initiative.

The Atlas V / NROL-52 launch. (Click on any image to enlarge) Photo Credits: Jeff Spotts (left) and Ben Cooper (middle and right) / ULA

The Atlas V / NROL-52 launch. (Click on any image to enlarge) Photos Credit: Ben Cooper / ULA

Atlas-V / NROL-52 launch on October 15, 2017

Atlas-V / NROL-52 launch. Photo Credit: Jeff Spotts / ULA

Atlas-V / NROL-52 launch on October 15, 2017

An Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 with the National Reconnaissance Office’s NROL-52 payload. Photo & Caption Credit: Ben Cooper / ULA

Video courtesy of United Launch Alliance



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,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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