April 13, 2012

Delta IV-Medium lofts classified satellite from Vandenberg

by Peter W. Merlin
special to Aerotech News

Following a five-day delay that allowed technicians to complete a precautionary review of the upper stage engine, a Delta 4 rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex 6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, Calif., April 3.

The launch vehicle – designated Delta 359 and nicknamed “Electra” – carried a classified National Reconnaissance Office payload, officially identified only as NROL-25.

NRO officials declined to identify the exact nature of the 8-ton spacecraft, calling it simply a “national security payload.” The launch team’s motto for this flight is Victoria Commissa Omnibus (“Committed to Victory for All”) and the mission insignia features a charging bull, branded with the Roman numeral XXV. The launch was the culmination of several years of intensive effort by personnel from the NRO, United Launch Alliance, 30th Space Wing, Launch and Range Systems Wing, and the 4th Space Launch Squadron.

“The teamwork between the 30th Space Wing, the National Reconnaissance Office, United Launch Alliance and numerous other agencies was seamless,” said Col. Nina Armagno, 30th Space Wing commander and launch decision authority. “It’s this synergistic mindset and attention to detail that led to our amazing launch today.”

Payload requirements necessitated that he NROL-25 mission use the United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 rocket, for the first time flying in its Medium+ (5,2) configuration (also known as the Delta 9250), which features a single core stage filled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, a pair of strap-on solid-fuel boosters, a five-meter-diameter cryogenic upper stage and similarly sized payload shroud. The solid rocket motors each add nearly 225,000 pounds of thrust to augment the Delta IV’s 650,000 pounds of main engine thrust. Standing 217 feet tall, the 5,2 version is the only one of five various Delta 4 configurations that has not been previously used in the Delta program during 18 previous launches from Florida and California.

Initially some analysts suspected the classified payload might be a Naval Ocean Surveillance System satellite but Ted Molczan, an internationally recognized amateur space-tracking expert based in Canada, believes it may be a Future Imagery Architecture reconnaissance satellite of the type that was reportedly launched on the NROL-41 flight in Sept. 2010. The FIA project produced a reconnaissance satellite that uses synthetic aperture radar to spot targets at night and in bad weather, and penetrate foliage. In addition, it is reportedly smaller and less expensive than the five 33,000-pound Lacrosse/Onyx imaging radar satellites launched between 1988 and 2005, but with equal or higher image resolution.

Molczan and other satellite-tracking enthusiasts calculated the launch trajectory based on information released by the Air Force to ensure downrange safety below the Delta’s flight path. “I am confident that its payload is the second FIA-Radar satellite,” Molczan wrote on the SeeSat online discussion forum March 25.

The NRO operates a variety of satellites that provide analysts, policy makers and war fighters in global hotspots with critical intelligence data. In testimony before Congress on March 8, NRO principal deputy director Betty Sapp said, “In 2011 alone, NRO provided extremely valuable intelligence supporting more than 15 operations to capture or kill high value targets in combat areas. In addition, NRO supported more than 120 tactical operations locating Improvised Explosive Devices, helping to prevent the most lethal attacks against our ground combat forces. These tactical support operations also included support to ground and air tactical actions; counter-terrorist actions; and maritime anti-piracy/interdiction. We also provided vital overhead support to 17 critical Combat Search and Rescue missions. In addition to ground combat operations support, NRO supported 33 Strait of Hormuz transits ensuring U.S. Naval Forces had the intelligence assistance needed for safe passage.”

Like its sister spacecraft, launched two years ago, the new FIA-Radar satellite will occupy a polar orbit. The orbits of both spacecraft are aligned 180 degrees out of plane from each other for maximum coverage of Earth’s surface.

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