Atlas 5 rocket blasts off into space with spy satellite

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carrying a classified National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite roared to life and climbed away from Cape Canaveral Thursday, a spectacular public start for a clandestine mission.

The towering 19-story rocket's Russian-built RD-180 first-stage engine fired up at 1:45 p.m. EDT (GMT-4), followed a few seconds later by ignition of four solid-fuel strap-on boosters that instantly began pushing the rocket away from launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The early moments of the flight appeared normal as the rocket accelerated away on more than 2 million pounds of thrust, visible for miles around as it arced to the East over the Atlantic Ocean through a mostly clear sky.

The RD-180 engine at the heart of the Atlas 5 first stage has been a political lightning rod of sorts in the wake of Russia's actions in Ukraine and Crimea, with some lawmakers concerned about what they view as U.S. reliance on Russian rocket technology.

RD-180 engines are marketed by RD AMROSS, a joint venture between engine-builder NPO Energomash and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. While all of the Atlas RD-180s launched to date were built in Russia, ULA officials say they have a two-year supply of engine hardware in hand, minimizing any possible political impacts on upcoming national security missions.

In any case, the RD-180 used Thursday appeared to operate smoothly, presumably chalking up its 51st straight successful flight across the Atlas family of boosters. But as usual with large-scale NRO missions, no details about the rocket's performance, the payload or its mission were released, and ULA launch commentary ended, as planned, a few minutes after liftoff.

While there are exceptions, spy craft launched from the East Coast typically are boosted into 22,300-mile-high equatorial orbits favored by eavesdropping signals intelligence satellites and data relay stations.

Optical and radar surveillance satellites are usually launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California into polar orbits, where spacecraft pass over every point on the globe as it rotates below.

The visible trajectory of the NROL-67 mission as the Atlas 5 climbed away on an easterly trajectory appeared to match up with an equatorial orbit. Amateur satellite trackers believe NROL-67 may be an advanced signals intelligence satellite, but that has not been confirmed.

In the meantime, a dedicated group of satellite sleuths around the world was standing by to begin searching for the NROL-67 payload to determine its orbit and, as a result, glean clues about its nature.

  • William Harwood

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."