The U.S. government's newest spy satellite launched Wednesday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., the second of four launches planned this year by the National Reconnaissance Office. NRO called the launch "flawless."
The NRO, which serves the Department of Defense and the U.S. Intelligence Community, hasn't actually acknowledged that a satellite is on board the Atlas V rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The partners refer only to the mission's "national security payload."
The launch of NROL-38 (the current mission number) had been scheduled for June 16 but was scrubbed at the launch pad when a problem with the rocket's environment control system duct was discovered. The rescheduled launch, pictured here, went without a hitch at 8:28 a.m. at Cape Canaveral.
On April 3, the NRO launched another intelligence payload aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Two more missions are slated for the next six weeks. Last year, the NRO funded six launches.
The NRO provides satellite imagery to the DOD and U.S. intelligence agencies, as well as to the departments of State and Justice and other civilian agencies. According to Congressional testimony in March by Betty Sapp, principal deputy director of the NRO, the agency last year provided intelligence that aided in the killing or capture of "high-value targets" in more than a dozen operations and supported counterterrorism and anti-piracy efforts, among other scenarios. Its images are also used by scientists to study the environment, oil spills, and natural disasters.
The agency's next mission, NROL-15, is designed to carry a bigger payload than NROL-38. It will be hoisted by a Delta IV rocket, which United Launch Alliance co-developed with the Air Force, in a "heavy configuration" for payloads of up to 25 tons. NROL-15 is scheduled to launch June 28 from Cape Canaveral.
United Launch Alliance, formed in 2005, provides rockets and launch services to other government customers, as well. Over the past 12 months, it has sent rockets aloft for the Air Force, Navy, and NASA.
The Lockheed-Boeing partnership is getting into the commercial space transportation business as well. In April, it announced the formation of a Human Launch Services Organization, which has a mandate of carrying astronauts into low-Earth orbit and deeper into space.
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the NRO, and details of the agency's secretive operations have gradually emerged. Last week, the agency released a previously top secret report on the nineteen-year history of its earliest satellite system, the so-called Poppy system. That program concluded in 1977.
Photo credit: United Launch Alliance