Atlas 5 boosts classified satellite to space

CBS News

After waiting out bad weather, a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket blasted off Tuesday and boosted a classified satellite into space, putting on a brief but spectacular show as the booster knifed through low clouds and disappeared from view. The nature of the satellite payload and even the government agency that will operate it were not revealed.

The 189-foot-tall rocket's Russian-built RD-180 first stage engine thundered to life at 8:10 p.m. EDT (GMT-4) -- two hours and 26 minutes behind schedule -- throttled up to full power and smoothly pushed the booster away from launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carrying a classified satellite blasts off from Cape Canaveral in this time exposure shot at the Kennedy Space Center press site. (Credit: ULA)

As the crackling roar of the engine rumbled across Cape Canaveral, the slender rocket arced away to the east over the Atlantic Ocean, climbing through low clouds and lighting them from above in dramatic fashion as the RD-180 consumed the first stage load of liquid oxygen and kerosene propellant.

The powerful engine shut down four minutes after liftoff, the first stage fell away and the Centaur second stage's hydrogen-fueled Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine ignited, continuing the boost to space.

Two Centaur firings were planned to put the classified CLIO satellite into its planned orbit, but given the classified nature of the mission no details were provided about the trajectory, how long it might take for the satellite to compolete one orbit or what the spacecraft was designed to do.

It was not even known which government agency sponsored the launching or what the name of the satellite -- CLIO -- might mean. The spacecraft is based on Lockheed Martin's commercial A2100A spacecraft bus and amateur satellite sleuths have speculated it could be a communications station of some sort.

United Launch Alliance ended its mission commentary 20 minutes after liftoff, just after the first of the two Centaur burns were completed. At that point, there were no known problems and the rocket appeared to be operating normally.

Additional details may be provided later, after the satellite's release from the Centaur stage.