Secret NRO satellite mounted atop Atlas 5 rocket for July 28 launch

Editor’s note July 20: Story updated with launch time announcement.

File photo of Atlas 5 payload installation. Credit: ULA
File photo of Atlas 5 payload installation. Credit: ULA

CAPE CANAVERAL — Crews hoisted a covert spacecraft atop an Atlas 5 booster rocket this morning for its trek into an equatorial orbit next week.

United Launch Alliance will perform the deployment mission on July 28 for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, the government agency that oversees the country’s spy satellite fleet.

The launch is known as NROL-61 and the satellite’s purpose is classified.

The NRO tells Spaceflight Now that the rocket will head easterly away from Cape Canaveral along an initial flight azimuth of 99 degrees.

Liftoff is planned for 8:37 a.m. EDT (1237 GMT). The duration of the usable launch window remains secret, but officials previously said the liftoff would occur by 12 noon EDT (1600 GMT).

The rocket will be operating in its 421 configuration with a 14-foot-wide nose cone, two side-mounted solid boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

Officials also confirm to Spaceflight Now that the Extra Extended Payload Fairing (XEPF) version of the rocket’s aluminum nose cone will shroud the payload during atmospheric ascent. It is 45 feet in length and the longest of three available options.

This is the first time the NRO has used a Atlas 5-421 to launch one of its satellites.

File photo of XEPF fairing lift. Credit: NASA-KSC
File photo of XEPF fairing lift. Credit: NASA-KSC

In preparation for the mission — the NRO’s third this year and the Atlas 5 rocket’s fourth — the payload was delivered to the Vertical Integration Facility adjacent to the Complex 41 pad early this morning.

Already hidden from view inside the nose cone, the secret satellite was lifted off its transporter by an overhead crane and maneuvered atop the Centaur upper stage for mating.

The payload connection tops off the rocket at 194 feet tall. It will be rolled out to the pad on July 26.

Here’s a look at some stats about NROL-61. This will be:

  • The 646th launch for Atlas program since 1957
  • The 351st Atlas launch from Cape Canaveral
  • The 235th mission of a Centaur upper stage
  • The 212th use of Centaur by an Atlas rocket
  • The 470th production RL10 engine to be launched
  • The 13th RL10C-1 engine launched
  • The 70th flight of the RD-180 main engine
  • The 64th launch of an Atlas 5 since 2002
  • The 53rd launch of an Atlas 5 from Cape Canaveral
  • The 4th Atlas 5 launch of 2016
  • The 96th Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle flight
  • The 23rd EELV flight for National Reconnaissance Office
  • The 13th National Reconnaissance Office use of Atlas 5
  • The 109th United Launch Alliance flight overall
  • The 56th Atlas 5 under United Launch Alliance
  • The 23rd NRO launch by United Launch Alliance
  • The 78th United Launch Alliance flight from Cape Canaveral
  • The 43rd 400-series flight of the Atlas 5
  • The 6th Atlas 5 to fly in the 421 configuration
  • The 45th NRO launch since acknowledging flights in 1996
  • The 22nd NRO launch from the Cape
  • The 3rd NRO launch this year

See earlier NROL-61 coverage.

Our Atlas archive.