Atlas rocket to launch clandestine cargo Saturday

Posted: September 5, 2001

Atlas 2AS rocket sits on the SLC-3E pad at Vandenberg in preparation to launch the Terra satellite in December 1999. Photo: NASA
A Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket is on track for launch Saturday from Central California to propel into space a top-secret national security payload that appears tied with the current fleet of ocean surveillance satellites orbiting the Earth.

Liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base's Space Launch Complex-3 East will occur during a period of 1300 to 1700 GMT (9 a.m. to 1 p.m. EDT), but sources say look for blastoff during a window of 1524 to 1536 GMT (11:24 to 11:36 a.m. EDT). The Air Force is expected to announce the formal launch time on Thursday.

"We are not working any issues. The final preparations of the vehicle are going well," Tom Heter, the Lockheed Martin launch director, said in an interview Wednesday.

The rocket will head in a south-southeasterly trajectory toward an orbit inclined 63.4 degrees to either side of the equator. The flight is expected to last roughly 73 minutes from liftoff until release of the payload from the Centaur upper stage.

Although the exact weight of the cargo is classified, Lockheed Martin says this will be the heaviest payload ever lofted by an Atlas rocket, surpassing the current record held by NASA's 10,500-pound Terra Earth-observing satellite launched from Vandenberg in 1999.

Officials say the payload will be deployed into a "transfer orbit" around Earth, meaning the spacecraft must maneuver itself into an operational perch above the planet. The U.S. spy satellite agency -- the National Reconnaissance Office -- owns the spacecraft.

"I can acknowledge that it is ours," NRO spokesman Rick Oborn said. But he declined to provide any further details of the craft's identity given the typical NRO rules of classifying national security satellites.

This launch has been delayed twice, with earlier target launch dates of July 30 and August 25 scrapped. The launch windows released for both dates -- 8:22 to 8:50 p.m. EDT and 2:34 to 2:59 p.m. EDT, respectively -- revealed the liftoff time shifted 14 minutes earlier each day. That progression matches the 11:24 to 11:36 a.m. EDT window for Saturday's opportunity. The window was recently shortened as a result of officials deciding to adjust the amount of fuel on board the rocket to ensure mission success.

Based upon the 63.4 degree orbit and movement of the daily launch window, Ted Molczan, an experienced hobbyist satellite observer from Toronto, Canada, concluded the Atlas is most likely carrying a new wide-area ocean surveillance payload.

There are currently five such payloads believed to be operating in space today, and their orbital planes move by 14 minutes per day just like the launch window's advancement.

"They are the only existing U.S. military satellites that advance at this rate," Molczan said.

Most commonly known as the Naval Ocean Surveillance System, these clusters of spacecraft, which launched together in one package only to split apart in orbit, are used to spy on ships at sea by picking up radar and radio transmissions. They fly in formation like a triangle to accurately pinpoint locations of enemy vessels.

The first generation NOSS payloads were launched aboard Thor-Agena and Atlas boosters in the 1970s and 1980s, and satellite observers have circumstantial evidence to believe two of the "triad" clusters -- NOSS 1-6 and NOSS 1-7 -- are still operational since they recently maneuvered themselves. The two sets were launched in 1984 and 1986, respectively.

Also in space are the three triads from the second generation program that was called the Space-Based Wide Area Surveillance System, although civilians continued using the "NOSS" name. The clusters NOSS 2-1, NOSS 2-2 and NOSS 2-3 were launched aboard Titan 4 rockets in 1990, 1991 and 1996, respectively. One additional payload was destroyed in the explosion of a Titan 4 shortly after liftoff in 1993.

"The NOSS 2-1 plane is 115 degrees east of the NOSS 2-2 plane. The NOSS 2-3 plane is 155 degrees east of the NOSS 2-1 plane, and 90 degrees west of the NOSS 2-2 plane," Molczan says of the NOSS constellation.

"So, currently the largest gap is between NOSS 2-3 and NOSS 2-1. This 155-degree gap could be by design, or it could be the result of the loss of the NOSS triad in the Titan 4 launch failure of August 1993. That triad was replaced by the May 1996 launch -- its launch plane had virtually the same spacing relative to the other 2nd generation triads as the one that was lost."

"There is evidence that until now, the large gap may have been filled by two first generation triads. The NOSS 1-6 and NOSS 1-7 planes are located roughly in the middle of the large 155-degree gap between NOSS 2-3 and NOSS 2-1. Specifically, NOSS 1-7 is about 74 degrees east of NOSS 2-1, and NOSS 1-6 is 49 degrees east of NOSS 1-7, and 31 degrees west of NOSS 2-3. So those very aged triads appear to have a role in filling the largest gap in the NOSS 2 constellation."

After analyzing what information was available, Molczan concluded "the upcoming launch would eliminate the 155-degree gap by establishing a plane about 91 degrees east of NOSS 2-1 and 64 degrees west of NOSS 2-3."

Mission poster for Saturday's launch. The mission is named "Gemini" in honor of two workers who have died. Photo: ILS
Satellite observers will be watching the skies closely for this new payload. It isn't known if this is another triplet cluster, which provides a remarkable sight to skywatchers as the three craft sail overhead in formation, or a completely new concept for the program's third generation such as scaling down the system into one satellite.

A new generation would explain how the NOSS has grown lighter to enable an Atlas rocket to launch them instead of the much more powerful Titan 4 used for the second generation.

There were national news reports in 1993 that said a new generation was under development for launches starting at the end of the decade to provide enhanced capabilities for eavesdropping on ships and submarines at sea and monitoring land-based targets, too. A court fight in 1994 between then-Martin Marietta and TRW over the contract to build the satellites ended with Martin Marietta winning. The company later merged to become Lockheed Martin.

In 1992 a contract was awarded to rebuild the Space Launch Complex-3 East pad -- the site of Saturday's launch. The construction work was ordered for the launches of two NRO missions using the newer Atlas 2AS rocket, which can lift much larger payloads than the older Atlas boosters the site was originally suited to support. The second NRO launch is scheduled for late next summer.

Flight data file
Vehicle: Atlas 2AS (AC-160)
Payload: NRO
Launch date: Sept. 8, 2001
Launch window: 1524-1536 GMT (11:24-11:36 a.m. EDT)
Launch site: SLC-3E, Vandenberg AFB, Calif.
Satellite broadcast: Galaxy 3, Trans. 9, C-band

Pre-launch briefing
Launch timeline - Chart with times and descriptions of events to occur during the launch.

Ground track - See the trajectory the rocket will follow during its flight.

Atlas 2AS vehicle data - Overview of the rocket to be used in this launch.

Atlas index - A directory of our previous Atlas launch coverage.