Atlas V rocket launches NROL-101 spy satellite to orbit

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket thundered to life and streaked faraway from Cape Canaveral during a dramatic sunset launch, putting on a spectacular Friday the 13th sky show visible across Florida’s Space Coast.

Running nine days late due to trouble with ground equipment, the rocket’s Russian-built RD-180 main engine fired up with a rush of flame at 5:32 p.m EST., followed by ignition of three strap-on solid-fuel boosters, instantly pushing the 20-story-tall rocket faraway from pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Just two miles away, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stood poised for launch Sunday from the Kennedy Space Center to place four astronauts into orbit for a flight to the International space platform , the primary commercial mission ever certified by NASA and therefore the FAA.
The astronauts’ launch had been planned for Saturday, but the flight was delayed thanks to expected high winds at the launch site and offshore weather where SpaceX plans to land the rocket’s first stage on a corporation droneship. In any case, with a crowd of reporters available to observe the Atlas launch, the rocket smoothly accelerated because it consumed propellants and lost weight, powering through the speed of sound and therefore the region of maximum aerodynamic stress because it climbed out of the thick lower atmosphere and arced away to the northeast.
The three strap-on boosters burned out and fell away as planned about two minutes into flight and therefore the ascent continued on the facility of the RD-180 engine.

The 66-foot-long GEM 63 solid rocket motors, built by Northrop Grumman, were making their first flight, replacing the AJ-60A SRMs built by Aerojet Rocketdyne that flew with all previous booster-equipped Atlas 5s. ULA says the new boosters are more economical and are easier to handle during ground processing.

The boosters seemed to work normally Friday and a touch quite a moment after they were jettisoned, the 2 halves of the Atlas 5’s clamshell-like payload fairing peeled away, exposing the satellite to the space environment.
At that time , as was common with classified NRO missions, United Launch Alliance ended its mission commentary, leaving it to the Air Force to verify a successful flight during a post-launch update a while after the satellite’s deployment.

No details about the rocket’s classified payload or its intended orbit were released, but charts posted by ULA before launch showed a northeasterly trajectory paralleling the U.S. East Coast , indicating an orbit tilted, or inclined, 50 to 60 degrees or more to the equator.

Ted Molczan, a respected independent satellite analyst, speculated the payload was either a Satellite information system spacecraft, wont to devour and expire signals from spy satellites in lower orbits, or a SIGINT satellite wont to pay attention to targeted communications.

Both sorts of satellites have used steeply inclined, highly elliptical “Molniya” orbits within the past to watch Russia and other areas of interest within the hemisphere . But no details about the ultimate orbit of the satellite launched Wednesday were immediately available.