Space

August 31, 2013

Defense satellite launched from Vandenberg may be final KH-11

delta-launch3
 

On Aug. 28 the 4th Space Launch Squadron and United Launch Alliance successfully lofted a classified satellite payload into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office atop a Delta IV-Heavy, the largest rocket currently available in the U.S. inventory.

With an earsplitting roar that shook surrounding communities, the massive booster departed Space Launch Complex 6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., at 11:03 a.m., PST, and soared into clear blue skies off the California coast.

Officially designated Delta 364 but nicknamed “Victoria” by mission team members, this is only the second Delta IV-Heavy to liftoff from the West Coast. Several others have been launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and one from Vandenberg in January 2011.

Standing over 230 feet tall and weighing more than 14 tons, the Delta IV-Heavy is a triple-body rocket assembled from three common booster cores (CBCs) mounted together side by side. Three liquid-hydrogen fueled RS-68 engines provide first-stage thrust at launch. The second stage uses a single RL10-B-2 engine to place the payload spacecraft in low Earth orbit. For Wednesday’s launch the starboard CBC was ignited two seconds earlier than usual so as to burn off residual gaseous hydrogen near the launch pad. This was deemed necessary because on previous flights, ignition of vented hydrogen has scorched foam insulation covering the CBCs. This phenomenon, coupled with the rocket’s slow initial departure speed, resulted in disconcerting images of the booster wreathed in flames as it ascended into the sky. The new procedure, however, proved quite effective in mitigating this problem.

delta-launch1

Intensive preparations for the mission began April 29 when the rocket was rolled out to the launch pad. Two months later, Air Force and ULA crews put the vehicle through a dress rehearsal that followed a realistic launch-day script requiring the rocket to be fully fueled and powered so that team members could practice countdown procedures. It wasn’t until late July that the secret payload – identified only as NROL-65 – was encapsulated within its protective fairing and mated to the launch vehicle for checkout and integration.

As usual with NRO launches, detailed information on the payload was not publicly disclosed but this hasn’t stopped analysts from speculating on the basis of available clues. The size of the rocket and its payload shroud provided some general indication of the spacecraft’s size, and the launch trajectory indicated an orbital inclination of around 97 degrees. These factors and the launch time suggested to some that this was the final launch of a KH-11 optical surveillance satellite. Space analysts believe a total of 14 satellites of the KH-11 family, including improved models, were launched between 1976 and 1990.

It has been long suspected that the NRO ordered two more of these venerable spacecraft after the Future Imagery Architecture program’s planned KH-11 successor was canceled in 2005 when delays and cost overruns led Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte to cancel that portion of the FIA program. The NRO was then forced to use one remaining KH-11 and build another from spare parts to meet the needs of the intelligence community. The first of those two satellites, NROL-49, was reportedly launched from Vandenberg on a Delta IV-Heavy in 2011.

delta-launch2

Additional clues to the Aug. 28 mystery payload may be found in mission patches worn by military and civilian launch team members. The launch vehicle patch features a Delta IV-Heavy flying into the sunset, and includes the name “Victoria.” The payload patch shows an anthropomorphized American eagle holding the world in its right hand and a fanged serpent in its left. The snake’s tail forms the lower-case Greek letter omega, symbolically indicating the payload’s final flight. The eagle sports a tattoo on its left arm with the name “Buttercup,” and is wearing a desert camouflage tunic emblazoned with the U.S. flag and a tag reading “DYS.” The emblem also bears the Gaelic inscription, “Sheachadadh Do Rudai” (Delivering Your Stuff).




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 
Image courtesy of NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory finds planet that makes star act deceptively old

Image courtesy of NASA/CXC/M. Weiss A new study from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory shows that a giant exoplanet, WASP-18b, is making the star that it orbits very closely act much older than it actually is. This artist&...
 
 
NASA photographs by Tom Tschida

NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft 911 moves to final home

NASA photographs by Tom Tschida NASA 911, one of two retired Shuttle Carrier Aircraft that ferried NASA’s space shuttles across the country for three decades, is towed from NASA Armstrong’s Bldg. 703 on its final journey to...
 
 
Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover arrives at Martian mountain

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has reached the Red Planet’s Mount Sharp, a Mount-Rainier-size mountain at the center of the vast Gale Crater and the rover mission’s long-term prime destination. “Curiosity n...
 

 

NASA announces 2014 aeronautics scholarship recipients

NASA has selected 20 students from across the nation to receive the agency’s Aeronautics Scholarship for the 2014-2015 school year. This scholarship program, which is in its seventh year, is designed to assist undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in fields of study related to aeronautics. Recipients were selected from hundreds of applications to the program....
 
 
NASA photograph by Dan Casper

NASA’s Orion spacecraft nears completion, ready for fueling

NASA photograph by Dan Casper The Orion crew module, stacked atop its service module, moved out of the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept 11. Orion was transporte...
 
 

NASA awards cross-track infrared sounder instrument for the JPSS-2

NASA has awarded a sole source contract modification to Exelis, Inc., Geospatial Systems, of Fort Wayne, Ind., for the Cross-track Infrared Sounder Instrument for flight on the Joint Polar Satellite System-2 mission. This is a cost-plus-award-fee modification in the amount of $221 million. This action extends the period of performance of the contract from November...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>