Atlas V Poised for NRO Secret Mission


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A secret National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spacecraft is poised for launch Dec. 10-11 from Cape Canaveral on board a U.S. Air Force Atlas V rocket.

Details emerging about the mission indicate that the Atlas V will launch a Boeing Satellite Data System (SDS) type relay satellite.

The flight is designated NROL-24. The payload will replace one launched into the same "Molniya" highly elliptical orbit on board a Lockheed Martin Titan IV in July 1996.

The SDS system relays imagery and other information from NRO intelligence spacecraft to processing facilities. The data may have initially been sent to an NRO ground station that is in communication with both the SDS relay and intelligence spacecraft. The technique enables "bent-pipe" real time forwarding of critical data.

The SDS spacecraft have been most often associated with relaying visible and infrared imagery from NRO/Lockheed Martin Advanced KH-11 type electro optical satellites. Liftoff from Launch Complex 41 is scheduled for Dec. 10 at 5:04 p.m. EST. If the flight slips the launch time will move 5 minutes for each day the flight is delayed

The mission may be visible to people along the U.S. East Coast as far north as New England. This is because the United Launch Alliance Atlas V will fly an unusual trajectory at dusk, closely paralleling the Eastern Seaboard.

The spacecraft will be placed in about a 500 x 25,000 mile orbit inclined 63 degrees. However, it may initially be placed in a lower orbit. This will mark the first SDS launched by an Atlas V.

The flight could be slipped depending upon launch timing for the space shuttle Atlantis. The NRO and Air Force have agreed to slip their launch if necessary to enable the NASA mission to launch as early as possible.

Copyright 2007 Aviation Week and Space Technology.

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