A huge unmanned rocket carrying a secret new spy satellite for the United States roared into space on Sunday to deliver what one reconnaissance official has touted as ‘the largest satellite in the world’ into orbit.
A Delta IV Heavy rocket successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on November 21st, rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced in a corporate press release.
“This mission helps to ensure that vital NRO resources will continue to bolster our national defense,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Ed Wilson, commander 45th Space Wing, after the successful launch.
“The spectacular evening launch showcases how the 45th assures access to the high frontier and supports global operations.”
The craft, which was propelled into space at 5:58pm Eastern time, was carrying a classified cargo for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.
“I believe the payload is the fifth in the series of what we call Mentor spacecraft, a.k.a. Advanced Orion, which gather signals intelligence from inclined geosynchronous orbits,” satellite tracker Ted Molczan told Spaceflight Now, according to CBS News reports.
“They are among the largest satellites ever deployed. The satellite likely consists of sensitive radio receivers and an antenna generally believed to span up to 328 feet to gather electronic intelligence for the National Security Agency (NSA).”
The satellite, dubbed NROL-32, was sent into orbit by a Delta 4 Heavy rocket — the largest unmanned rocket with the most powerful liquid-fueled booster. U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Director Bruce Carlson said the NROL-32 would be ‘the largest satellite in the world.’
Bruce Carlson also added that the current plan for NRO satellite missions “is the most aggressive launch campaign that the National Reconnaissance Office has had in 20 years, almost a quarter of a century.”
Carlson went on to say that new satellites are vital for the NRO’s mission, and are needed to replace older satellites before they fail.
“The other thing I can tell you is these are very important, because they all go to update a constellation which is aging rapidly,” Carlson said last month according to an NRO transcript. “We bought most of our satellites for three, five, or eight years, and we’re keeping them on orbit for ten, twelve, and up to twenty years.”
“Now when I buy something people complain about how expensive it is, but nobody ever complains when it’s time to die and it keeps right on ticking,” Carlson added. “Some of these guys are like the Energizer bunny and they have really done marvelous work.”
Comparing the device to the seven metric ton Terrestar-1 telecom spacecraft, which boasted “an 18m antenna-reflector to relay phone and data traffic,” BBC reports that the unidentified cargo launched on Sunday would have a mesh antenna that ‘would exceed’ that of Terrestar-1, and ‘could even be substantially bigger than the 22m-diamater structure orbited last week on another commercial platform called Skyterra-1.’
Sunday’s launch was the fourth for the Delta IV Heavy rocket, which first took flight in December 2004, and the second for the NRO, according to company officials.
In a statement, ULA vice president Jim Sponnick said that the launch marked “the culmination of years of hard work and dedication by the combined NRO, Air Force, supplier, and ULA team. ULA is pleased to support the NRO as it protects our nation’s security and supports our warriors defending our nation around the world.”
According to the ULA, the Delta IV Heavy includes a central common booster core, as well as two additional strap-on boosters, each of which is powered by an RS-68 cryogenic engine.
The craft’s payloads are encased in a nearly 17-foot diameter, tri-sector fairing that is made out of aluminum. The next launch for the rocket, which was originally built in Decatur, Alabama, is currently scheduled to occur on January 11, 2011 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. [United Launch Alliance (ULA) via Mashable, Space and RedOrbit]