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The Mission

Rocket: Atlas 3B
Payload: NRO
Date: February 3, 2005
Time: 2:41 a.m. EST (0741 GMT)
Site: Complex 36B, Cape Canaveral, Florida
Broadcast: AMC 4, Transponder 17, C-band, 101° West

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Pre-launch preview story

Launch events timeline

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Follow the countdown and launch of the Lockheed Martin Atlas 3 rocket with a classified National Reconnaissance Office payload. Reload this page for the very latest on the mission.

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This collection of pictures from last week's successful Lockheed Martin Atlas 3 rocket launch covers retraction of the mobile service tower, the foggy blastoff from Cape Canaveral and the post-liftoff ceremony inside the Complex 36 blockhouse. Enter gallery


While its liftoff was hidden by a dense blanket of fog draped over Cape Canaveral's Complex 36 Thursday morning, the last Lockheed Martin Atlas 3 rocket flew into the history books in fine style as it successfully launched two formation-flying spy satellites probably meant to track enemy ships at sea. Read our full story.

After heart-felt speeches and toasts to say goodbye to the launch site that Atlas-Centaur rockets have called their Cape Canaveral home since the 1960s, the spotlights shining on Complex 36 were turned off in a ceremony following's Thursday's liftoff. Read our full story.

1020 GMT (5:20 a.m. EST)

Hobbyist satellite observers in Canada have spotted the clandestine spacecraft payload successfully launched into orbit this morning. Based on the Atlas rocket's trajectory and the visual sighting of two satellites flying in close formation, all evidence points to this launch deploying the third in the current generation of craft for the Naval Ocean Surveillance System, or NOSS.

Two other pairs of NOSS satellites were launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California atop Atlas 2AS rockets in 2001 and 2003.

NOSS satellites are used by the U.S. government to track ships sailing across the world. The previous generations of NOSS satellites featured three craft from each launch flying in the shape of a triangle, working together to determine the positions of vessels below. But these three most recent launches have featured only two visible satellites, suggesting a new generation and design.

The surveillance system is believed to detect radio transmissions from ships for precision tracking of the enemy vessels.

The trade magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology reported in late 2003, before the second launch of this current NOSS generation, that the system's vital role had been heightened by the ongoing war on terror.

"Both the difficulty and importance of NRO's space ocean surveillance role, in connection with the Navy and Coast Guard, has been elevated since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The need to track thousands of civilian ships worldwide has intensified given the potential for seemingly harmless shipping to be involved in nuclear, chemical or biological terrorist operations. It was easier to track Soviet warships than a far larger number of civilian ships with unknown cargos and crew," the magazine reported.

"Each formation returns data on the location and direction of ships within view of its elint and interfrometry sensors. A global real-time computer database on all ship movements is updated as data from each group of satellites are continually merged with data from other similar formations as well as Navy and Coast Guard air and sea surveillance," the magazine said.

The National Reconnaissance Office -- the secretive government agency responsible for designing and operating the U.S. fleet of spy satellites -- acknowledged that these launches carried its payloads. But all details about the craft and their mission are not revealed to the public.

0903 GMT (4:03 a.m. EST)

This is the 75th consecutive successful launch of an Atlas rocket, extending this remarkable string dating back to 1993.

The next Lockheed Martin launch will be an Atlas 5 rocket on March 10 from the Cape carrying a commercial communications satellite for Inmarsat. The launch window that day extends from 4:40 to 4:51 p.m. EST.

0900 GMT (4:00 a.m. EST)

T+plus 79 minutes, 12 seconds. SPACECRAFT SEPARATION! The clandestine National Reconnaissance Office payload has been released into space following launch by the sixth and final Lockheed Martin Atlas 3 rocket!

0858 GMT (3:58 a.m. EST)

T+plus 77 minutes, 50 seconds. The upper stage's systems are reported stable.

0857 GMT (3:57 a.m. EST)

T+plus 76 minutes, 30 seconds. Centaur is now reorienting to the spacecraft deployment position.

0857 GMT (3:57 a.m. EST)

T+plus 76 minutes. Spacecraft deployment is less than three minutes away.

0856 GMT (3:56 a.m. EST)

T+plus 75 minutes, 19 seconds. MECO 2. The Centaur engine has shut down, completing the powered phase of this morning's launch.

0855 GMT (3:55 a.m. EST)

T+plus 74 minutes, 58 seconds. The Pratt & Whitney RL10 engine of the Centaur upper stage has reignited for the burn to boost the NRO cargo from the current parking orbit to the desired deployment orbit.

0855 GMT (3:55 a.m. EST)

T+plus 74 minutes, 20 seconds. The Centaur RL10 engine pre-ignition sequence has started.

0854 GMT (3:54 a.m. EST)

T+plus 73 minutes, 40 seconds. Tanks on the Centaur are being pressurized.

0854 GMT (3:54 a.m. EST)

T+plus 73 minutes. Settling thrusters are firing to prepare the stage for engine restart.

0852 GMT (3:52 a.m. EST)

T+plus 71 minutes. Tank pressures are normal and battery voltages are good on the Centaur as the vehicle.

0851 GMT (3:51 a.m. EST)

T+plus 70 minutes. Less than five minutes remain until ignition. This will be a brief, less-than-30-second burn.

0850 GMT (3:50 a.m. EST)

T+plus 69 minutes. Centaur has begun reorienting itself to the proper position for the upcoming engine firing.

0847 GMT (3:47 a.m. EST)

T+plus 66 minutes. The rocket is 556 miles in altitude and over 14,000 miles downrange from the launch site.

0843 GMT (3:43 a.m. EST)

T+plus 62 minutes. The upper stage is reversing the direction of its planning rolling motion. This roll ensures that thermal heating remains even across the stage.

0835 GMT (3:35 a.m. EST)

T+plus 54 minutes. Centaur continues in its quiet coast period. Ignition of the RL10 engine for its second burn is 20 minutes away.

0816 GMT (3:16 a.m. EST)

T+plus 35 minutes. Complex 36 has gone dark. The spotlights illuminating the complex are being turned off to complete this morning's ceremony.

The start-up rocket company SpaceX hopes to lease the two pads. They want to launch the Falcon 1 rocket from pad 36A and Falcon 5 from pad 36B.

0811 GMT (3:11 a.m. EST)

T+plus 30 minutes. The press corps here at Cape Canaveral are enjoying cake and sparkling cider as a farewell to Complex 36.

0807 GMT (3:07 a.m. EST)

T+plus 26 minutes. The launch team inside the Complex 36 Blockhouse as well as management in the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center on the north end of Cape Canaveral are now having a ceremonial "toast" to say goodbye to the complex. This is the 145th and final Atlas mission from the site after four decades of use.

Future Cape launches of Atlas will fly from Complex 41 using the next-generation Atlas 5.

0806 GMT (3:06 a.m. EST)

T+plus 25 minutes. To see the route the rocket is taking this morning, see a map here.

0800 GMT (3:00 a.m. EST)

T+plus 19 minutes. This parking orbit achieved is right on target, Lockheed Martin reports. So far, it has been a smooth flight of the final Atlas 3 rocket.

0758 GMT (2:58 a.m. EST)

T+plus 17 minutes, 25 seconds. MECO 1. The Centaur main engine has shut down as planned following the first of two planned firings to deliver the NRO spacecraft into orbit this morning. The vehicle will coast for nearly an hour before the Centaur reignites for a brief firing to inject the payload into the desired orbit.

0757 GMT (2:57 a.m. EST)

T+plus 16 minutes. Centaur is still performing normally.

0755 GMT (2:55 a.m. EST)

T+plus 14 minutes, 55 seconds. The rocket continues flying right on the planned track.

0755 GMT (2:55 a.m. EST)

T+plus 14 minutes, 30 seconds. Less than three minutes to go in this burn.

0753 GMT (2:53 a.m. EST)

T+plus 12 minutes, 45 seconds. Engine parameters on the RL10 powerplant are normal as the burn continues.

0751 GMT (2:51 a.m. EST)

T+plus 10 minutes, 20 seconds. The rocket is now 1,000 miles northeast of the launch pad at an altitude of 272 miles.

0750 GMT (2:50 a.m. EST)

T+plus 9 minutes. The vehicle remains right on the projected track.

0749 GMT (2:49 a.m. EST)

T+plus 8 minutes, 50 seconds. The rocket is now 810 miles northeast of the launch pad at an altitude of 262 miles and traveling at a velocity of over 15,000 feet per second.

0749 GMT (2:49 a.m. EST)

T+plus 8 minutes. Just under 10 minutes remain in this planned burn of the Centaur.

0748 GMT (2:48 a.m. EST)

T+plus 7 minutes. The rocket is now 500 miles northeast of the launch pad and over 200 miles in altitude.

0746 GMT (2:46 a.m. EST)

T+plus 5 minutes, 30 seconds. Good chamber pressure reported on the RL10 engine.

0745 GMT (2:45 a.m. EST)

T+plus 4 minutes. The upper stage engine is burning normally.

0744 GMT (2:44 a.m. EST)

T+plus 3 minutes, 40 seconds. The 14-foot diameter payload fairing nose cone has been jettisoned. It is no longer needed to protect the NRO payload during the launch.

0743 GMT (2:43 a.m. EST)

T+plus 3 minutes, 20 seconds. The Centaur upper stage's RL10 engine has ignited!

0743 GMT (2:43 a.m. EST)

T+plus 3 minutes, 9 seconds. The Russian RD-180 main engine of the Atlas 3 rocket's first stage has shut down as planned. And the spent first stage has been jettisoned to fall into the Atlantic.

0743 GMT (2:43 a.m. EST)

T+plus 2 minutes, 45 seconds. The RD-180 engine is throttling down to hold constant acceleration at 5 g's.

0743 GMT (2:43 a.m. EST)

T+plus 2 minutes. All looks good in the flight.

0742 GMT (2:42 a.m. EST)

T+plus 75 seconds. The RD-180 engine is throttling up to 88 percent thrust level after passing through Max Q.

0741 GMT (2:41 a.m. EST)

T+plus 32 seconds. The Russian-made RD-180 main engine is easing back to two-thirds throttle as the Atlas rocket accelerates through the lower atmosphere.

0741 GMT (2:41 a.m. EST)

T+plus 10 seconds. The final Lockheed Martin Atlas 3B rocket has cleared the tower at Complex 36, and the RD-180 main engine has revved up from three-quarters throttle to 92 percent power.

0741 GMT (2:41 a.m. EST)

T-minus 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, ignition and LIFTOFF! An Atlas rocket flies away from Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for the final time after four decades of launches.

0740 GMT (2:40 a.m. EST)

T-minus 31 seconds. The launch sequence has been started!

In the next few seconds the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen vent valves will be locked and the flight data recorders will be activated.

0740 GMT (2:40 a.m. EST)

T-minus 45 seconds. Final status checks are underway to confirm the propellant and pneumatics systems on the Atlas and Centaur stages are "go" for launch.

0740 GMT (2:40 a.m. EST)

T-minus 1 minute. The fuel fill sequence for the first stage engine is reported complete and the RD-180 powerplant is being verified ready for flight. Ignition will occur at T-minus 2.73 seconds and the Russian-made engine will build up to 74 percent thrust. A check of eight engine parameters will performed by the rocket's onboard computer a half-second before liftoff. If no problems are detected, the rocket will be allowed to launch at T-0.

0739 GMT (2:39 a.m. EST)

T-minus 90 seconds. The inertial navigation unit is being "launch enabled" and the ignition enable switch is being closed.

Centaur liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen tanking will be secured over the next half-minute.

0739 GMT (2:39 a.m. EST)

T-minus 2 minutes. The Atlas first stage and Centaur upper stage are switching to internal power. And the Flight Termination System is arming for launch.

0738 GMT (2:38 a.m. EST)

T-minus 2 minutes, 15 seconds. The Atlas and Centaur stages are now being pressurized. Tanks are being brought to proper pressure levels for flight.

In the past few seconds, Atlas propellant topping was secured. Also, the engine preparation steps were verified complete.

0738 GMT (2:38 a.m. EST)

T-minus 3 minutes. RP-1 kerosene fuel is now flowing into the RD-180 engine of the Atlas first stage, conditioning the Russian-made powerplant for ignition.

The water system is being readied for activation at launch pad 36B. Water will flood the pad to suppress the sound produced at liftoff and protect the ground support systems.

0737 GMT (2:37 a.m. EST)

T-minus 3 minutes, 20 seconds. The Flight Termination System is switching from ground-supplied power to internal batteries.

0736 GMT (2:36 a.m. EST)

T-minus 4 minutes, 30 seconds. The pneumatics of the Centaur upper stage are being prepared.

0736 GMT (2:36 a.m. EST)

T-minus 5 minutes and counting! The Lockheed Martin Atlas 3B rocket and NRO spacecraft have entered the final phase of this morning's launch countdown. Liftoff is set for 2:41 a.m. EST from pad 36B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

0735 GMT (2:35 a.m. EST)

Standing by to pick up the countdown in one minute for launch of the Atlas 3B rocket designated AC-206. This is the final Atlas 3 rocket to fly.

0734 GMT (2:34 a.m. EST)

Lockheed Martin launch director Adrian Laffitte has given his "go" to resume the countdown for an on-time liftoff tonight at 2:41 a.m. EST.

0733 GMT (2:33 a.m. EST)

From his console in the Complex 36 Blockhouse, the launch conductor has polled the launch team for readiness to continue the countdown. No problems were announced!

0731 GMT (2:31 a.m. EST)

The countdown is scheduled to resume in five minutes. All remains in readiness.

0730 GMT (2:30 a.m. EST)

The fuel fill sequence to condition the Atlas 3 rocket's first stage main engine has started. This is a key milestone in proceeding with the countdown as scheduled.

0726 GMT (2:26 a.m. EST)

Now 15 minutes from launch. Lockheed Martin is not reporting any constraints.

0723 GMT (2:23 a.m. EST)

The Complex 36 Blockhouse escape tunnel doors are now being sealed.

0722 GMT (2:22 a.m. EST)

The Atlas first stage liquid oxygen tank is reported at flight level. The Centaur upper stage liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks reached flight level earlier, meaning the rocket is now fully fueled for launch.

But given the cryogenic nature of the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen loaded into the rocket tonight, the supplies naturally boil away and the propellants have to be replenished during the countdown.

0721 GMT (2:21 a.m. EST)

T-minus 5 minutes and holding. The countdown has entered the final scheduled hold in this morning's launch operation. The pause is scheduled to last 15 minutes. During this time, the launch team will verify all systems are ready for flight. Management will conduct a series of polls before giving final approval to continue with the countdown.

Liftoff remains targeted for 2:41 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

0715 GMT (2:15 a.m. EST)

Lockheed Martin says fog is not a constraint for launch. The pad remains completely hidden from view.

0706 GMT (2:06 a.m. EST)

T-minus 20 minutes and counting. Countdown clocks are ticking down to the T-minus 5 minute mark where a 15-minute hold will occur. Liftoff still set for 2:41 a.m. EST.

The fog has worsened greatly in the past few minutes. The launch pad has completely disappeared from our viewing location about 2.5 miles away.

0655 GMT (1:55 a.m. EST)

The Atlas first stage liquid oxygen topping to flight level is starting.

0654 GMT (1:54 a.m. EST)

An inhibited self test of the rocket's Flight Termination System is beginning. The FTS would be used to destroy the vehicle in the event of a malfunction during launch.

0653 GMT (1:53 a.m. EST)

All weather rules remain "go" for launch.

0651 GMT (1:51 a.m. EST)

The liquid hydrogen tank inside the Centaur upper stage is now 97 percent full, heading to flight level.

0643 GMT (1:43 a.m. EST)

The Atlas liquid oxygen tank has reached the 98 percent level where it is being maintained. Topping to 100 percent will be completed shortly.

0642 GMT (1:42 a.m. EST)

The Centaur liquid hydrogen tank is half full.

0641 GMT (1:41 a.m. EST)

Launch of the Atlas 3B rocket is now 60 minutes away. All countdown activities are progessing as planned. The only concern remains the weather. The situation is being monitored closely in hopes of acceptable conditions at launch time. Right now, weather is "go."

0636 GMT (1:36 a.m. EST)

The Centaur engine gaseous helium chilldown has started.

0635 GMT (1:35 a.m. EST)

Filling of the Lockheed Martin Atlas 3B launcher with super-cold rocket fuel continues at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's pad 36B on Florida's east-central coast tonight. Liftoff remains scheduled for 2:41 a.m. EST.

The liquid oxygen tank in the Atlas first stage is now 70 percent full; the Centaur liquid hydrogen tank has reached the 10 percent mark; and the Centaur liquid oxygen tank has achieved flight level.

0630 GMT (1:30 a.m. EST)

The liquid hydrogen chilldown is now complete and the "go" has been given to load the super-chilled fuel into the Centaur upper stage. The cryogenic propellant will be consumed with liquid oxygen by the stage's Pratt & Whitney-made RL10 engine to propel the NRO payload into the targeted orbit this morning.

0629 GMT (1:29 a.m. EST)

The first stage liquid oxygen tank is now half full.

0626 GMT (1:26 a.m. EST)

It is becoming noticeably foggy and colder in the past short while.

0624 GMT (1:24 a.m. EST)

The Atlas liquid oxygen tank is now 20 percent full. The rocket's shiny metallic first stage is turning an icy white as the super-cold liquid oxygen continues to flow into the vehicle.

0620 GMT (1:20 a.m. EST)

The Centaur liquid oxygen tank, which was loaded over the past half-hour, is now being topped to flight level.

0615 GMT (1:15 a.m. EST)

The "go" has been given to commence loading of the Atlas first stage liquid oxygen tank.

0614 GMT (1:14 a.m. EST)

The Centaur liquid oxygen tank has reached the 95 percent level where it is being secured. Topping to 100 percent will be completed shortly. As the countdown progresses, the tank will be replenished to replace the cryogenic liquid oxygen that naturally boils away.

0609 GMT (1:09 a.m. EST)

The chilldown conditioning of liquid hydrogen propellant lines at pad 36B is now starting to prepare the plumbing for transferring the Minus-423 degree F fuel into the rocket.

Also at this time the door of the Complex 36 Blockhouse is being sealed, protecting the 120-member launch team. The Blockhouse is located about 1,400 feet away from the Atlas 3 rocket at pad 36B, and serves as the control center during the countdown to launch.

0608 GMT (1:08 a.m. EST)

The Centaur liquid oxygen tank is now 65 percent full.

0558 GMT (12:58 a.m. EST)

The Centaur liquid oxygen tank has reached the 10 percent level as fueling operations get underway for this morning's 2:41 a.m. EST launch of the Atlas 3B rocket.

0553 GMT (12:53 a.m. EST)

The chilldown conditioning of the liquid oxygen transfer lines at pad 36B is complete, and the "go" has now been given to start filling the Centaur upper stage with its its supply of super-cold cryogenic oxidizer.

The liquid oxygen -- chilled to Minus-298 degrees F -- will be consumed during the launch by the Centaur's single RL10 engine along with liquid hydrogen to be pumped into the stage a little later in the countdown.

Meanwhile, the final alignment of the Atlas rocket's inertial navigation guidance computer has been completed. The flight control system final preps have begun.

0544 GMT (12:44 a.m. EST)

Safety officials have confirmed that the danger area around the launch pad is cleared of all personnel. With that verification, the launch conductor has given approval to start the "chilldown" procedure for thermal conditioning of liquid oxygen fuel lines at pad 36B in advance of loading the Centaur upper stage.

0541 GMT (12:41 a.m. EST)

T-minus 105 minutes and counting. After the planned half-hour pause in the countdown, clocks are ticking again.

The countdown will continue to T-minus 5 minutes where a planned 15-minute built-in hold is scheduled.

0537 GMT (12:37 a.m. EST)

The launch team members have been individually polled by launch conductor to verify their readiness for the upcoming fueling operations when cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants are loaded into the Atlas first stage and Centaur upper stage. No constraints were reported. Launch director Adrian Laffitte then gave a "ready" status.

At launch pad 36B, workers have finished work following mobile service tower rollback. The launch conductor has instructed them to clear the area.

0530 GMT (12:30 a.m. EST)

It is a calm, warm night here at the Cape. We are positioned at the media viewing location about 2.5 miles from the Atlas 3B rocket. Pad 36B is brilliantly lit by the powerful spotlights, making the complex visible throughout the Space Coast area.

0527 GMT (12:27 a.m. EST)

The mobile service tower has been completely rolled back, exposing the Atlas 3B rocket. A hole is the clouds is still over the Cape. We can see stars from the press site.

0522 GMT (12:22 a.m. EST)

The Air Force meteorologists are now predicting a 70 percent chance of bad weather for this morning's launch opportunity. That is a marked improvement from the earlier 95 percent chance "no go" forecast. At this moment, there no weather rules being violated.

0515 GMT (12:15 a.m. EST)

From Press Site 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, good morning and welcome to our live coverage of a national security satellite launch aboard the final Lockheed Martin Atlas 3 rocket.

The countdown is entering the final two-and-a-half hours for today's planned 2:41 a.m. EST (0741 GMT) liftoff from pad B at Complex 36. Activities are progressing smoothly and there are no technical issues being reported. The only worry at this hour is the weather. Meteorologists say there is a 90 percent chance that thick clouds will violate the rules governing acceptable launch weather conditions this morning. An aircraft will used to provide real-time assessments of the cloud decks during the countdown as the weather officer looks for an opportunity to permit the rocket to launch safely.

The Integrated Launch Operations sequence commenced as scheduled at 11:26 p.m. EST. The launch conductor stationed in the Complex 36 blockhouse polled his entire team a short time later to verify all was in readiness to retract the gantry from around the 18-story-tall Atlas vehicle. With no hurdles in the way, the mobile service tower was rolled slightly away from the rocket to the so-called tangent position a few feet from the vehicle. But it was decided a few minutes ago to preceed with moving the tower to the launch position.

Countdown clocks currently stand at T-minus 105 minutes and holding. This half-hour pause is pre-planned to build slack into launch preparations so engineers can deal with any problems that could crop up. The count will resume ticking at 12:41 a.m. EST, to be followed shortly thereafter with the start of fueling operations to load the rocket with super-cold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants.

This is the sixth and final Atlas 3 rocket that will ever fly. Lockheed Martin developed the vehicle as a transition from the earlier Atlas 2 series to the next-generation Atlas 5 family.

The objective of today's launch is delivering a classified payload into Earth orbit for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, which the secretive government agency reponsible for operating the country's fleet of spy satellites.

Again, everything is proceeding on schedule and the launch team is aiming for a liftoff at 2:41 a.m. EST.

0436 GMT (11:36 p.m. EST Wed.)

Following a weather briefing launch officials have decided to press ahead with the countdown while keeping a close eye on the weather which continues to threaten tonight's launch. Officials are preparing to fuel the rocket in the tower and are awaiting information on cloud cover from weather reconnaissance aircraft. The mobile service tower will be moved to the "tangent position", just a few feet from the rocket, so it can later be fully retracted by remote control. This allows the countdown to continue and the rocket to be fuelled on schedule.

At this point stars can be seen above the Cape so there is at least some optimism.

0300 GMT (10:00 p.m. EST Wed.)

The Proton has been launched from Central Asia and the countdown rolls on at Cape Canaveral for the planned overnight Atlas rocket blastoff. Both missions are managed by International Launch Services.

A crucial weather briefing is coming up in the countdown at 11:16 p.m. EST to brief mission managers on the latest outlook. The forecast has been calling for a 95 percent chance of bad weather for the scheduled 2:41 a.m. EST launch of the Lockheed Martin Atlas 3B booster.

We'll update this page as soon as information becomes available following the weather update. It is expected that officials could decide to scrub the countdown unless there is some new optimism added to the forecast.

0212 GMT (9:12 p.m. EST Wed.)

A Russian Proton rocket is just 15 minutes away from launching an American communications satellite from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. You can see live updates on that launch here.

0112 GMT (8:12 p.m. EST Wed.)

An operational test of the Lockheed Martin Atlas 3B rocket's flight control system is beginning. Coming up in about 75 minutes, a navigation test of the vehicle's guidance computer will start. These are among the countless activities that make up the standard countdown to launch.

The launch remains scheduled for 2:41 a.m. EST (0741 GMT). However, there is a 95 percent chance of unacceptable weather conditions for the overnight liftoff.

0106 GMT (8:06 p.m. EST Wed.)

The pneumatics on both the Atlas first stage and Centaur upper stage are being put through their pre-launch preparations now, along with the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen system checks. Also, crews at pad 36B have started the initial chores to ready the mobile service tower for retraction later tonight, weather permitting.

0036 GMT (7:36 p.m. EST Wed.)

The Atlas first stage propulsion and hydraulic systems preps have started on time.

2358 GMT (6:58 p.m. EST)

The weather situation has worsened even more. There is now a 95 percent chance of weather scrubbing tonight's launch opportunity, the Air Force meteorologists just told mission managers. The plan is to continue with the early portions of the countdown and receive another weather update at 11:16 p.m. EST. If the situation has not improved, it appears unlikely that the launch team will retract the mobile service tower and move ahead with fueling operations.

The forecast for a Friday morning launch attempt, if the mission is postponed 24 hours, calls for better weather.

2351 GMT (6:51 p.m. EST)

With less than eight hours until the targeted launch time, technicians have begun powering up the Lockheed Martin Atlas 3B rocket. The 176-foot tall vehicle stands within the protectice service gantry at Cape Canaveral's pad 36B. That mobile tower is scheduled to be rolled back at 11:41 p.m. EST tonight to expose the rocket.

2330 GMT (6:30 p.m. EST)

The countdown is proceeding at Cape Canaveral tonight. The launch team is gathering and initial pre-launch work is starting. Even though the weather does not look promising, officials decided late this afternoon to press ahead with the launch attempt in hopes conditions will be acceptable at the 2:41 a.m. EST liftoff time.

The exact duration of the launch window remains classified. However, it is clear the window lasts less than a half-hour.

2200 GMT (5:00 p.m. EST)

It has been a gray day here at Cape Canaveral. Extensive cloud cover and spotty rain showers have plagued the Space Coast all day. Radar shows rain drifting our way from the north and also from the Atlantic. Launch meteorologists said this morning that forecast conditions meant there was an 80 percent chance of a scrub.

2030 GMT (3:30 p.m. EST)

The countdown clocks at Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 36 will begin ticking at 5:51 p.m. EST for Thursday's early morning launch of the Lockheed Martin Atlas 3B rocket carrying a classified satellite cargo for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. Launch is slated to occur at 2:41 a.m. EST (0741 GMT).

Throughout the evening the crews in the Complex 36 blockhouse and at pad 36B will proceed through their standard countdown chores needed to ready the Atlas booster, its single-engine Centaur upper stage and the ground systems for launch.

Highlights of activities planned, in the order they are scheduled to be performed, include Centaur propulsion launch preps, powering up the rocket's flight control system, Atlas propulsion and hydraulic systems preps, launch pad umbilical tower and mobile service structure preps, performing the flight control operational test, the internal power test of Atlas/Centaur, performing a navigation test of rocket's guidance computer, starting Centaur helium purges and starting liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen system final preps.

The Integrated Launch Operations -- the final portion of the countdown in which all members of the launch team participate -- will start at 11:26 p.m. EST (0426 GMT). Retraction of the mobile service tower from around the rocket is slated for 11:41 p.m. EST.

Countdown clocks will enter a planned 30-minute hold at the T-minus 105 minute mark starting at 12:11 a.m. During this time the launch team will have a chance to catch up on any work that could be running behind schedule.

Fueling operations will commence at 12:55 a.m. with super-cold liquid oxygen flowing into the Centaur upper stage. Loading of liquid oxygen into the Atlas booster stage should start at 1:16 a.m. The final segment of fueling will begin at 1:32 a.m. when liquid hydrogen is pumped into the Centaur. The Atlas stage was previously fueled with its supply of RP-1 kerosene propellant.

A final planned hold is scheduled at T-minus 5 minutes for 15 minutes in duration starting at 2:21 a.m. If there are no problems standing in the way of liftoff, the countdown will resume at 2:36 a.m. for an on-time launch.

1550 GMT (10:50 a.m. EST)

The weather forecast for tonight's countdown has not changed. The Air Force launch weather officer says there remains an 80 percent chance of unacceptable conditions for liftoff of the Atlas 3B rocket due to thick clouds and rain showers. See the latest forecast here.

1700 GMT (12:00 p.m. EST)

The farewell launch of Atlas rockets from Cape Canaveral's Complex 36 is poised for blastoff at 2:41 a.m. EST (0741 GMT) Thursday, but unfavorable weather is threatening to delay the mission.

"We did our Launch Readiness Review (this morning). Everything is 'go' for launch. The only thing we have a concern on is the weather," Atlas launch director Adrian Laffitte said a short time ago.

Air Force meteorologists are predicting an 80 percent chance of bad weather due to thick clouds and disturbed weather in the area at launch time.

Despite the bleak odds of acceptable weather, officials plan to proceed with the overnight countdown in hopes of getting a break in the clouds. Past experience says the fickle Florida weather can change in an instant, and the launch team doesn't want to pass up a shot too prematurely in case Mother Nature does cooperate.

A weather briefing for mission managers is planned for Wednesday afternoon. Unless the meteorologists say there is no possibility of favorable launch weather, the countdown activities will commence as planned.

"We've (launched) when there has been a 90 percent chance of bad weather," Laffitte recalled.

"I told (the weather officer) all I need is a five-minute opportunity," Laffitte added, and the rocket will be on its way.

Lockheed Martin's last Atlas 3B booster will carry a classified national security payload into space. The launch trajectory will take the rocket northeastward as it parallels the U.S. eastern seaboard. The mission lasts about 79 minutes, with the Centaur upper stage deploying the secret cargo above the South Pacific.

Thursday's launch will be a very bittersweet moment for the Atlas team. It will be the 145th and final Atlas to fly from the two-pad Complex 36 after four decades of service.

A post-liftoff ceremony is planned in which officials will turn off the blindly powerful spotlights illuminating the complex as the site "goes dark."

For more about the history of Complex 36, read our launch preview story.

Lockheed Martin will safe and secure the complex, remove equipment and finish its work there by summer. The start-up company SpaceX hopes to lease the site from the Air Force for launches of its new Falcon 1 and Falcon 5 rockets starting no sooner than 2007.

Future Atlas launches from the Cape will happen from the rebuilt Complex 41 serving the new Atlas 5 program, which was derived from systems and engines of the earlier Atlas 2 and Atlas 3 series of boosters.

"The Atlas 2 and 3 program has served as a stepping stone over to the Atlas 5 program. Our evolutionary approach of building upon our successes, building upon what we know and continuing to make it better, I think, has served us very well. That is something we will continue to do -- evolve from our success."

We will provide live reports throughout the countdown and flight on this page.

1530 GMT (10:30 a.m. EST)

Secrecy surrounding the launch time has been lifted. The Atlas rocket is slated for launch at 2:41 a.m. EST (0741 GMT) Thursday morning from pad 36B at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The duration of the available launch window has not been revealed, but all indications point to a rather short period.

The latest weather forecast that was issued this morning continues to predict iffy conditions for Thursday's launch opportunity. See the full forecast here.

1315 GMT (8:15 a.m. EST)

A weather system bringing rainshowers and a thick cloud cover is expected to slide through Central Florida later this week -- just in time to potentially cause problems for Thursday's launch of the Atlas 3B rocket from Cape Canaveral. Air Force meteorologists say there is an 80 percent chance of conditions scrubbing the launch, with slightly better weather expected on Friday. See the full forecast here.


After finishing additional checks on the booster's first stage kerosene propellant tank, Lockheed Martin's last Atlas 3 rocket has been cleared to launch a clandestine national security satellite payload into space Thursday morning.

The mission was delayed by seven days to allow additional time for officials to review the technical issue. The situation was put to rest Thursday, and today the Air Force-controlled Eastern Range approved the new launch date reservation. Lockheed Martin was granted a launch opportunity on Thursday, Feb. 3 and a backup shot on Friday, Feb. 4, if needed.

Launch from pad 36B at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station will occur in the overnight hours. However, the exact liftoff time remains in secrecy until early next week.

The launch will be historic for a number of reasons, including the final Atlas liftoff from Complex 36 after four decades of flights and the last use of Lockheed Martin's Atlas 3 vehicle.


The finale flight of Lockheed Martin's Atlas 3B rocket has been postponed a week so technicians can perform precautionary checks on the first stage fuel tank, officials said today.

Liftoff had been planned for early Thursday morning from pad 36B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. A new launch date has not been booked on the Air Force-controlled Eastern Range at the spaceport, but officials are asking for February 3.

The booster will deliver a classified National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite payload into a highly inclined Earth orbit.

If the Atlas is cleared for a February 3 launch shot, the rocket would be lifting off while a Russian Proton vehicle is hauling a commercial communications satellite into orbit. Both missions are managed by International Launch Services, which markets the Atlas and Proton rockets.

The Proton and its Breeze M upper stage will launch the AMERICOM 12 spacecraft from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Central Asia at 0227 GMT on Feb. 3, beginning a 9-hour ascent to geosynchronous transfer orbit.

1650 GMT (11:50 a.m. EST)

Thursday's planned launch of the Lockheed Martin Atlas 3 rocket from Cape Canaveral has been postponed, according to the Eastern Range. A new launch date is not yet available.

We'll update this page as more information is released today.


The first probe to orbit another planet. A craft that gave mankind its only up-close look at Mercury. A robotic explorer that will encounter a star four million years from now. Dozens of satellites that expanded communications around the globe and bolstered American national security.

These diverse missions are linked in history by launching from the same Cape Canaveral launch pad, which hosts its last Atlas rocket liftoff next Thursday, January 27.

Built in the early 1960s, launch pad 36B has supported 75 Atlas missions. Its finale launch will be a middle-of-the-night affair, with the exact time to be concealed until next week.

Read our launch preview story.


Lockheed Martin erected its last Atlas rocket at Complex 36 today as the historic Cape Canaveral launch site nears retirement after four decades of use.

The first stage of the Atlas 3 booster was hoisted atop pad 36B for its planned January 27 liftoff. The interstage adapter will be installed tomorrow and the Centaur upper stage is scheduled for attachment on Friday.

The rocket will carry a classified cargo for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office -- the government agency responsible for the country's fleet of spy satellites.

The upcoming flight will be the 145th and last launch for Complex 36's two pads. Pad 36A saw its liftoff finale three months ago. The complex was built in the early 1960s and served as the starting point for pioneering space probes to the moon, Mars and even the first man-made object to leave the solar system, plus dozens of commercial communications satellites and military payloads.

Pad 36B was modified in the late 1990s for the taller Atlas 3 vehicles. This will be the sixth and last Atlas 3 mission after successfully fulfilling the role as a transition rocket between the heritage Atlas 2 family and the next-generation Atlas 5 by introducing the Russian-designed RD-180 main engine.

Cape Canaveral's Complex 41 is the launch site for Atlas 5 rockets. Lockheed Martin is prepping a rocket there for liftoff December 16.

Atlas officials hope the blockhouse at Complex 36 will be turned into a museum that will pay tribute to the historic launches achieved from the site. The bunker is the last of its kind still in use at the Cape.



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