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Posted: December 10, 2007Its thunderous departure out of Cape Canaveral on Monday afternoon was hard to miss, but the hush-hush ascent of the Atlas 5 rocket was wrapped in an unusual cloak of secrecy as the booster propelled high above Earth a classified spacecraft designed to communicate with spy satellites.Under orders from the launch's customer -- the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office -- the rocket flight entered a news blackout shortly after its 5:05 p.m. EST (2205 GMT) liftoff from Complex 41. Credit: Chris Miller/Spaceflight NowThe NRO is the government agency responsible for the nation's fleet of spy satellites. It has carried out many launches in recent years, yet none were as secretive as Monday's flight.After an apparent smooth countdown, the rocket's Russian-designed RD-180 main engine roared to ignition to boost the 19-story Atlas skyward on nearly a million pounds of thrust.Cloud-free skies offered spectators a clear view of the flickering golden flame as the rocket maneuvered itself on a northeasterly path that would take it right up the Eastern Seaboard.The bronze first stage fired for four minutes before shutting down and separating, leaving the hydrogen-fueled Centaur upper stage to light its RL10 engine and continue the push to orbit. Shortly after the ignition, the no-longer-needed nose cone shrouding the payload was jettisoned.That was when updates on the rocket's trek fell silent. Live reports on the vehicle's health and progress ceased, preventing any real-time confirmation of key events such as the Centaur completing its engine burns and deployment of the payload. Typically, such information had flowed freely for NRO launches just like other NASA, military and commercial rocket flights. But not this time.About two hours after the liftoff, rocket-maker United Launch Alliance issued a press release saying the launch had ended successfully. Credit: Chris Miller/Spaceflight Now"ULA is proud to have played a critical role for this important NRO mission, ensuring that our nation has the technology and spaceborne assets needed to acquire intelligence worldwide," said Jim Sponnick, United Launch Alliance vice president of Atlas programs said in the post-launch news release. "Close teamwork with the NRO Office of Space Launch, the U.S. Air Force Launch and Range Systems Wing and the 45th Space Wing at Cape Canaveral made today's successful mission possible."Nearly the same time as the press release was being received, the spent Centaur upper stage was completing its first orbit. The rocket body was dumping residual propellant overboard, creating a stunningly bright fan-shaped cloud visible above eastern North America, with sighting reports from Louisiana to Canada. For those in the Cape Canaveral area gazing into the nighttime sky, it was a special treat after witnessing the spectacular liftoff just two hours earlier.Following the tradition of NRO launches on Atlas rockets, the mission was given a name -- Scorpius. The mission logo was displayed on the rocket's nose cone featuring a scorpion, a saying translated to "Beware Our Sting" and satellites flying in different types of orbits around Earth.The rocket flew into a highly inclined, highly elliptical orbit, dispatching a satellite that's destined for a Molniya-style orbit stretching from about 500 miles to 25,000 miles at an inclination of 63 degrees. Most space experts agree the payload was a data relay satellite that will be used to route information from polar-orbiting photo reconnaissance spacecraft to ground receivers. Credit: Chris Miller/Spaceflight NowSky-watchers say the government has relay satellite networks flying the highly elliptical orbits as well as geosynchronous orbit around the planet's equator.Early versions of these relay craft were launched starting in the mid-1970s, followed by a second-generation of satellites that were carried aloft on space shuttle missions in 1989, 1990 and 1992 and a Titan 4 rocket in 1996.Atlas rockets deployed more-recent craft for the Satellite Data System program toward a Molniya-style orbit in January 1998 and August 2004, and toward a geosynchronous orbit in December 2000 and October 2001.Monday's ascent took a northeast trajectory off the launch pad similar to the earlier Atlas missions bound for a Molniya orbit, and experts say the liftoff appeared timed to intercept the orbit occupied by the aging satellite lofted by the Titan a dozen years ago.Launch photos can be seen .It was the 12th flight for an Atlas 5 rocket and the fourth this year. Next up will be February's maiden launch from the rocket's West Coast pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying another NRO payload. The next liftoff from the Cape is targeted for March to haul the commercial ICO mobile communications satellite into space.Additional coverage for subscribers:VIDEO:THE ATLAS 5 ROCKET LAUNCHES ON NROL-24 MISSION VIDEO:OUR WIDESCREEN LAUNCH MOVIE FROM PRESS SITE John Glenn Mission PatchFree shipping to U.S. addresses!The historic first orbital flight by an American is marked by this commemorative patch for John Glenn and Friendship 7.Final Shuttle Mission PatchFree shipping to U.S. addresses!The crew emblem for the final space shuttle mission is available in our store. Get this piece of history!Celebrate the shuttle programFree shipping to U.S. addresses!This special commemorative patch marks the retirement of NASA's Space Shuttle Program. Available in our store!Anniversary Shuttle PatchFree shipping to U.S. addresses!This embroidered patch commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Program. The design features the space shuttle Columbia's historic maiden flight of April 12, 1981.Mercury anniversaryFree shipping to U.S. addresses!Celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alan Shephard's historic Mercury mission with this collectors' item, the official commemorative embroidered patch.Fallen Heroes Patch CollectionThe official patches from Apollo 1, the shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews are available in the store. | | | | 2014 Spaceflight Now Inc.Clues about mystery payload emerge soon after launch SPACEFLIGHT NOWPosted: September 8, 2009 A mysterious spacecraft whose mission is cloaked in secrecy left Cape Canaveral atop the hard-to-miss roar of its Atlas 5 rocket and then revealed a major clue about itself while cruising above a satellite-tracking hobbyist a short time later. Credit: Pat Corkery/ULAThe 19-story booster blasted off at 5:35 p.m. EDT, the first moment of theday's launch opportunity that punctuated a trouble-free countdown.The rocket's nose cone, adorned with Lockheed Martin's corporate logo,shrouded the payload as it climbed through the atmosphere and out ofsight.The company acknowledged that it had built the communications satellite -- dubbed "PAN" -- under a commercial arrangement with the government. Yet few other details werereleased, such as what agency was behind the project or what it would do in orbit."Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the PAN mission, whichincludes a commercial-based satellite and launch system solution for theU.S. government," a Lockheed Martin statement released to Spaceflight Nowsaid.Within 18 minutes, the Centaur upper stage turned off its main engine andsettled into an initial parking orbit where it would coast away from theplanet for 98 minutes.A group of respected sky-watchers around the world who track satelliteswith remarkable precision and communicate their findings amongst eachother online eagerly awaited Tuesday's launch and a chance to test theirpre-flight guesses against reality.The leading theory suggested PAN was a quick-build satellite that wouldserve as a communications gap-filler between the aging constellation ofUltra-High Frequency Follow-On (UFO) spacecraft and the sophisticated next-generationMobile User Objective System that's still being developed.Some 34 minutes after the Atlas launched from Florida, observer Greg Roberts, aretired astronomer living in Cape Town, South Africa, detected "a strongbeacon signal" being emitted from the PAN satellite as it crossed his sky."The time, general location of the signal in the sky, and its Dopplershift were consistent with the expected parking orbit," said Ted Molczan,a noted member of the trackers.For 14 minutes, Roberts heard the passing satellite transmitting a frequency unique to the UFO spacecraft. He had to cut the session short due to bad weather, but the hobbyists immediately knew their speculation was proving well founded. "We know of no other U.S. satellites in geostationary orbit that use thatfrequency, so Greg's observation tends to support the UFO-MUOS gap-filler hypothesis," Molczan said.Roberts, like others in the small international group of hobbyists whofind and watch satellites in secret orbits, does his observing usingtelescopic still and video cameras, and radio receivers.The east-bound trajectory sent the Atlas into an elliptical geosynchronoustransfer orbit, though the power provided by the rocket coupled with thepayload's relatively slim weight, estimated by the observers to be approximately 7,700 pounds, enabled a higher perigee, or low point, than other such launches.A second firing of the Centaur propelled PAN into its targeted deploymentorbit with an apogee of 22,230 miles and a perigee of 4,550 miles. The payload's release an hour and 59 minutes after liftoff successfully completed the ascent."The secrecy surrounding PAN may be a clue to the identity of itssponsoring agency. It appears not to belong to the DoD, given that its UFOand MUOS are open programs, as was the U.S. Navy's 'UHF Hosted Payload'gap-filler solution, which it briefly considered in 2008," Molczan said."The most likely remaining possibility is that a civilian intelligenceagency, perhaps the CIA, decided much earlier, about 2005-06, that itcould not risk a coverage gap, and obtained approval to rapidly procureand launch a satellite compatible with the UFO satellites," Molczan added.An article in a Lockheed Martin newsletter, entitled "A small andpersistent team turns a great idea into an important new U.S. program" andpublished in the spring of 2007, said its Special Programs had started thePAN mission, also known as the P360 project."The team's innovative turnkey commercial-based satellite, ground andlaunch system solution established the foundation for a new governmentarchitecture. The team functions across time zones from Space SystemsCompany in Sunnyvale, Calif., to Commercial Space in Newtown, Pa.,Lockheed Martin Information Systems & Global Services in San Jose, Calif.,Integral Systems in Lanham, Md., as well as Lockheed Martin divisionsabroad. United Launch Alliance in Denver, Colo., rounds out thecontributors with the Atlas 5 launch vehicle," the article continued."Following several years of concept development, market analysis, andfinally proposal submittal, the contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin inOctober 2006. The team has had successful system and preliminary designreviews and is on schedule for launch in 30 months from contract start."The observers plan to continue monitoring the moves of the satellite inthe coming weeks as it maneuvers into a circular geostationary orbit. Itsdestination could further bolster their guess."If it occupies one of the established UFO orbital slots, and transmits onthe established UFO UHF-band frequencies, that will fully confirm thepresent hypothesis. That will take at least several weeks," Molczan said.A later newsletter from December 2007 quoted the PAN program manager assaying: "Our PAN P360 team just celebrated our first anniversary sincecontract award. As program manager, I am very proud of the extraordinaryeffort and excellent team that has been leading this endeavor. We havesuccessfully hit every milestone on a 30-month firm-fixed-price programthat will change the future of how government programs will be contractedand run."This opportunity is a great challenge to build a government satellitethat uses the A2100 spacecraft bus and commercial off-the-shelf componentsand processes. There are numerous future Lockheed Martin opportunitiesthat hinge on the success of this program."Additional coverage for subscribers:VIDEO:ATLAS 5 ROCKET BLASTS OFF VIDEO:SECRET PAN MISSION BEGINS VIDEO:VIEW OF LAUNCH FROM NORTH OF COMPLEX 41 STS-134 PatchFree shipping to U.S. addresses!The final planned flight of space shuttle Endeavour is symbolized in the official embroidered crew patch for STS-134. Available in our store!Final Shuttle Mission PatchFree shipping to U.S. addresses!The crew emblem for the final space shuttle mission is now available in our store. Get this piece of history!Apollo CollageThis beautiful one piece set features the Apollo program emblem surrounded by the individual mission logos.STS-133 PatchFree shipping to U.S. addresses!The final planned flight of space shuttle Discovery is symbolized in the official embroidered crew patch for STS-133. Available in our store!Anniversary Shuttle PatchFree shipping to U.S. addresses!This embroidered patch commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Program. The design features the space shuttle Columbia's historic maiden flight of April 12, 1981.Mercury anniversaryFree shipping to U.S. addresses!Celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alan Shephard's historic Mercury mission with this collectors' item, the official commemorative embroidered patch. | | | | 2014 Spaceflight Now Inc.Confident Atlas rocket team ready to launch againSPACEFLIGHT NOW