WASHINGTON – The newest National Reconnaissance Office satellite lifted off successfully Wednesday aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. The rocket, in the 401 configuration, took off at 12:50 pm Eastern from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on ULA’s 21st mission for the NRO. Designated NROL-79, the intelligence agency did not disclose what payload the launch carried. The NRO rarely discusses what’s onboard its national security launches, and often does not give public confirmation that a satellite has reached orbit or become operational. ULA’s live broadcast of the launch ended shortly after liftoff, rather than after spacecraft separation, “at customer’s request,” the company said.
The Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center did post on Twitter that the fairing was jettisoned at four minutes and 30 seconds after launch. This was the second launch for ULA this year, following the January launch of a SBIRS missile warning satellite for the Air Force. It kicks off a busy month for the company, which will see two more launches in March alone. A Delta 4 is scheduled to launch the military’s ninth Wideband Global Satcom payload March 8, and an Atlas 5 is scheduled to lift off March 19 carrying a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. Both launches will take place from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Atlas 5 is powered by a Russian-made RD-180 engine, which continues to cause controversy in Washington. Military officials have said the engine is currently the only reliable choice for assured access to space, while some members of Congress have pressed the Pentagon to not rely on Russian-made rockets for U.S. national security launches. ULA is expected to make an announcement later this year about selecting a non-Russian-made engine for its next-generation Vulcan launch system. An Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10C engine powered the upper stage of the rocket.
“National security is imperative to the safe and secure future of our country and its citizens,” the company’s CEO and President Eileen Drake said in a statement. “It’s truly gratifying to know that the propulsion systems our employees build here at Aerojet Rocketdyne are helping to keep this country – and the brave military men and women protecting it overseas – safe from harm. Congratulations to all on another successful launch.” ULA dedicated the launch to Ventura County firefighter Ryan Osler, who lost his life during efforts to contain the Vandenberg Canyon Fire in September 2016. The fire, which swept through the area and damaged some of the base’s launch equipment, and delayed an Atlas 5 launch there by about two months. “The integrated mission team overcame many challenges, including delays associated with the Vandenberg Canyon Fire last year,” Laura Maginnis, ULA’s vice president for government satellite launch, said in a statement. “We are honored to dedicate today’s mission to [Ryan] and his family. Thank you to all of the men and women who worked to deliver this critical asset for our nation’s security.”