United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket boosts secret spy satellite into space

CBS News

The most powerful rocket ever launched from the West Coast roared away from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Thursday on a classified mission to loft a spy satellite into an orbit around Earth's poles in the huge booster's first use of a launch pad originally built for the space shuttle.

A United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy blasts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (Photo: Pat Corkery/United Launch Alliance)
Under a clear blue sky, the United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy thundered to life at 4:10:30 p.m. EST and majestically climbed away from Space Launch Complex 6 atop brilliant jets of fiery exhaust from its three hydrogen-fueled common core main engines.

After a brief vertical climb, the 235-foot-tall rocket arced over onto a trajectory carrying it due south over the Pacific Ocean toward an orbit tilted nearly 90 degrees to the equator. Details were classified, but such orbits are ideal for optical and radar reconnaissance satellites, which can observe the entire planet as it rotates below.

United Launch Alliance provided commentary through the first six-and-a-half minutes of the flight, but no information was provided after that. The nature of the National Reconnaissance Office satellite, known as NROL-49, was not discussed.

Amateur satellite trackers who search out military spacecraft and analyze their orbits have speculated that NROL-49 is one of two replacement KH-11 optical spy satellites built as a stop-gap measure until a more powerful version becomes available later in the decade.

The launching was the first for SLC-6 since 2006 when a single-core Delta 4 medium-class rocket carried a weather satellite into orbit and the first West Coast launch of a heavy-lift booster since the retirement of Lockheed Martin's Titan 4.

"This Delta 4-Heavy is the first-of-its-kind national capability here at Vandenberg," Lt. Col. Brady Hauboldt, the Air Force launch director and Vandenberg's 4th Space Launch Squadron commander, told Spaceflight Now. "The Delta 4-Heavy upgrades that we've done at SLC-6 as well as bringing the rocket out here allow us to put satellites of that type into orbit to support our downrange customers."

The $3 billion launch complex originally was built for classified polar-orbit space shuttle missions, with an initial flight scheduled for 1986. But in the wake of the Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger disaster 25 years ago this month, the Pentagon decided to move its high-priority payloads to unmanned rockets, first using Titan 4s and eventually Delta 4s and Atlas 5s, both built by United Launch Alliance.

This was the fourth Delta 4 launch for the National Reconnaissance Office. The first three were launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. But satellites launched from Florida cannot be placed in the polar orbits used for military reconnaissance and the Air Force spent more than $100 million upgrading SLC-6 to support Delta 4-Heavy missions from Vandenberg.

"We've really restored a national capability for heavy-lift on the Western Range, something we've not had since the last of the Titan 4B's flew out of Vandenberg," Hauboldt said. "This extends our ability to cost-effectively deliver payloads of all sizes, complements our existing Minotaur, Atlas 5, Delta 2 and Delta 4-Medium fleets."

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