Photos: Minotaur rocket vaults into orbit from Virginia

Riding a half-million pounds of thrust, a Minotaur 4 rocket fired off a launch pad in Virginia, surpassed the speed of sound in less than 20 seconds, and vaulted into orbit Wednesday with four classified payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office.

The 78-foot-tall (23.8-meter) Minotaur 4 rocket launched at 9:46 a.m. EDT (1346 GMT) Wednesday from pad 0B at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, located at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Four top secret payloads for the NRO, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency, rode the Minotaur 4 rocket into orbit several hundred miles above Earth. Government officials did not disclose the purpose of the payloads.

The Minotaur 4 rocket, assembled and launched by Northrop Grumman, uses retired motors taken from the U.S. Air Force’s decommissioned Peacekeeper missile stockpiles.

The lower three stages of the rocket launched Wednesday were built and filled with solid propellant between 1988 and 1990, then placed on alert in a silo for 15 years before the Air Force retired the Peacekeeper missile from its nuclear inventory, according to Col. Robert Bongiovi, head of the launch enterprise at the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

A commercial solid-fueled fourth stage motor is added to the top of the Peacekeeper motor stack to provide the additional boost to place payloads into orbit.

Read our full story for more details on the launch.

Credit: NRO
Credit: NASA/Allison Stancil
The launch from Virginia’s Eastern Shore on Wednesday marked the 27th flight of Northrop Grumman’s Minotaur rocket family since 2000. Credit: Northrop Grumman/Thom Baur
Credit: NRO
Credit: NRO
A Minotaur 4 rocket fires into a mostly sunny sky Wednesday from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia. Credit: Northrop Grumman/Thom Baur
Credit: NRO
Credit: NASA Wallops

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.