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Monday, 19 January 2009 22:36

Long delayed classified U.S. NRO L-26 satellite launched

The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) L-26 satellite, also called USA 202, was launched on Sunday, January 18, 2009, aboard a Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle by the United Launch Alliance. The classified mission was delayed a number of times due to technical problems.

Launched from Launch Complex 37B at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the NRO L-26 (or NROL 26) successfully began its flight into orbit about the Earth at 9:47 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST), 0247 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

Dramatic pictures of the launch sequence is found at LaunchPhotography.com.

The MRO mission was the first that the federal defense agency had used a Delta IV Heavy rocket.

It was the third flight of the Delta IV Heavy rocket for the Delta program, with the first being a demonstration flight in December 2004 and its first operational mission occurring in November 2007 for the U.S. Air Force.

The Delta 4-Heavy launch craft is the largest rocket, according to height, since the Saturn V rockets used during the Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s. The rocket is approximately the same height as a 24-story building.

The ULA/Boeing Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle uses a center common booster core, along with two strap-on common booster cores.

The RS-68 cryogenic engine, built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, powers each booster core, on the first stage. One RL10B-2 cryogenic engine powers the second stage, which is also built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

Page two includes more information on the RS-68 engines, along with additional information on the mission itself.

When launching, the Delta 4-Heavy uses three RS-68 (Rocket System 68 cryogenic engines, which use liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, that combine to produce over 1.9 million pounds of thrust; approximately 663,000 pounds of force (at sea level) for each engine.

According to the December 10, 2008 Aviation Week article NRO Delays Delta IV Heavy Launch, the NRO satellite and Delta launch vehicle “[f]undamentally involves America's biggest, most secret and expensive military spacecraft on board the world's largest rocket.”

The launch vehicle and satellite is estimated to cost over two billion dollars (U.S.).

The Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle, constructed by ULA in Decatur, Alabama, will have its upper stage burn three times, which will lift the payload into a geosynchronous orbit.

Although classified by the military branch of the U.S. government, the NRO L-26 satellite is assumed to be in orbit along with other NRO satellites, such as Satellite Data System (SDS) satellites and SIGnals INTelligenct (SIGINT) satellites.

SDA satellites are communications satellites that relay signals from low-flying reconnaissance aircraft to ground stations.

SIGINT satellites are intelligence-gathering satellites that intercept other signals.

Page three discusses the ELINT satellite system.

Military experts think that the NRO L-26 is an ELectronic Signals INTelligence (ELINT) satellite, either the first in the Intruder series of satellites or an Advanced Orion satellite.

An Intruder, also called an Integrated Overhead SIGINT Architecture (IOSA) satellite, is thought to be an advanced SIGINT combination of the ELINT and COMINT (Communications Intelligence) programs.

An Advanced Orion, also called MENTOR, is a reconnaissance satellite that the United States uses to collect signals intelligence (SIGINT) from space.

Aviation Week states that the NRO L-26 satellite is “an advanced geosynchronous orbit Orion eavesdropping spacecraft on board a Boeing Delta IV Heavy booster.”

This NRO L-26 satellite is assumed to be one of the SIGINT-type satellites because of the larger size of its launch vehicle (Delta IV Heavy), one of the largest rockets used by the U.S. military.

Jim Sponnick, United Launch Alliance vice president in charge of the Delta product line, stated, "This first Delta IV Heavy launch for the NRO is the culmination of years of hard work and dedication by the combined NRO, Air Force, supplier and ULA team. We appreciate the support from our mission partners in achieving this milestone.”

Sponnick added, "ULA is pleased to contribute to our nation's security, and to continue our strong partnership with the NRO. We look forward to launching many more NRO missions on ULA's Delta IV Medium, Delta IV Heavy and Atlas V vehicles.” [ActiveBoard.com: “RE: NRO L-26 Launch”]

Page four concludes with comments made by Aviation Week on the NRO.

The launch of the NRO L-26 satellite aboard the ULA/Boeing Delta 4-Heavy rocket had been delayed for over three years. The mission is to, generally, boister the defense of the country,

The NRO has been criticized for mishandling several defense projects in recent years.

In fact, Aviation Week stated, “NRO has been criticized for mismanagement of projects like its Future Imagery Architecture program, and the in orbit failure of the advanced USA 193 imaging satellite."

Specifically, "That spacecraft launched from Vandenberg in December 2007 and died almost immediately after launch. It was then destroyed in orbit by a U.S. Navy missile to prevent its frozen ball of hydrazine propellant from harming anyone on the ground (Aerospace DAILY, Feb. 22).”

The Aviation Week article concluded with the statement, “The NRO also continues to be criticized for a lack of imagination since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”

Additional information on the launch is found in the Milcom article “US Launches Advanced Elint Satellite.”

The website of the National Reconnaissance Office is: http://www.nro.gov/.

Its website states, "The NRO designs, builds and operates the nations reconnaissance satellites. NRO products, provided to an expanding list of customers like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Defense (DoD), can warn of potential trouble spots around the world, help plan military operations, and monitor the environment."



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