Atlas 2AS rocket propels top-secret cargo into orbit

Posted: October 10, 2001

Atlas 2AS rocket blasts off from the pad 36B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a classified NRO payload. Photos: ILS TV/Spaceflight Now
While America strikes back against terrorism half-way around the world, a surge of three previously-planned U.S. national security satellite launches in one month's time was completed successfully Wednesday night as a Lockheed Martin Atlas rocket soared into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Just like the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, launches of an Atlas rocket on September 8 and a heavy-lift Titan 4 on October 5, Wednesday's mission carried a spacecraft that will bolster the orbiting network of U.S. spy satellites.

The Atlas' engines and solid-propellant boosters lit as the smooth countdown reached the final seconds, sending the rocket crackling off launch pad 36B right on time at 10:32 p.m. EDT on a windy autumn evening.

The top-secret National Reconnaissance Office cargo was released from the Centaur upper stage 29 minutes later while flying above Angola on Africa's western coast.

This marked the 58th consecutive successful launch by the Atlas rocket dating back to 1993.

"All of our customers, of course, are very important, but given the events in the world today this is possibly a more important mission," Lockheed Martin launch commentator Don Spencer said after the spacecraft was deployed into orbit. "And we on the launch team here at Cape Canaveral are very proud that our efforts have resulted in completing this mission successfully."

It was only four weeks ago when another Atlas 2AS rocket placed into orbit what is believed to be a cluster of ocean surveillance satellites.

Then just last week a Lockheed Martin-built Titan 4 trucked to space a hush-hush payload suspected to be a Keyhole-type photo-electronic satellite.

Experts are divided, however, on what was launched atop the Atlas on Wednesday night. Some say the cargo is a signals intelligence satellite capable of eavesdropping on communication transmissions from orbit. But other observers, including the Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine, say it was the next in a series of data relay spacecraft used to beam back to Earth the reconnaissance imagery and information from orbiting spy satellites.

"Depending upon its final orbit, the new relay satellite could be used to route data involved in U.S. counter-terrorism operations or intelligence data specifically related to military operations in Afghanistan. Its launch was scheduled months before the September 11 terrorist attacks, but the new spacecraft will bolster the overall U.S. ability to route critical intelligence data to ground based analysts," Aviation Week said in a press release.

"Imaging spacecraft, like an advanced KH-11 satellite launched from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. October 5, fly in low orbits that circle the earth traveling from south to north over the poles. These spacecraft are out of contact with ground stations for long periods of time.

"Relay satellites like the one to be launched October 10, however, fly at up to 25,000 mile altitude. This allows the lower altitude imaging spacecraft to transmit data up to the relay satellites, which in turn route it to distant ground stations for transfer to the CIA and Defense Department."

Wednesday's Atlas launch was the fourth for the National Reconnaissance Office -- the government agency that operates the U.S. spy satellite fleet -- since 1998, with four more scheduled on Atlas 2, Atlas 3 and Atlas 5 rockets. The next flight in the line up is late next summer from Vandenberg using an Atlas 2AS.

The missions are managed by International Launch Services, the joint American-Russian venture between Lockheed Martin, Khrunichev and Energia to globally market Atlas and Proton rocket.

"ILS is honored to have a role in enhancing our nation's security by launching this NRO payload," said ILS President Mark Albrecht. "Every one of these missions is vitally important for national defense."

"The Atlas family has a proud heritage in launching government payloads for more than 40 years. We're continuing that partnership into the 21st century with our Atlas 2, 3 and 5 vehicles," Albrecht said.

The next Atlas mission on the books is tentatively slated for November 26 when NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-I spacecraft will ride into orbit. The sixth and final Atlas launch of 2001 is scheduled for December 19 when the inaugural Atlas 3B vehicle blasts off carrying the EchoStar-7 direct-to-home TV broadcasting satellite.

Now showing
Recent additions to our Spaceflight Now Plus service (subscribers only):

Listen to the readiness polls as launch team members call out their readiness to continue with the countdown for liftoff of the Atlas 2AS rocket.
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The Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.
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Lockheed Martin launch commentator Don Spencer explains why this Atlas rocket was given the name "Aquila".
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Confirmation is received that the classified payload for the NRO has been successfully released from Centaur upper stage.
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See our full listing of video clips.

Flight data file
Vehicle: Atlas 2AS (AC-162)
Payload: NRO
Launch date: Oct. 10, 2001
Launch period: 10:15-11:15 p.m. EDT (0215-0315 GMT on 11th)
Launch site: SLC-36B, Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla.
Satellite broadcast: Telstar 6, Trans. 17, 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.

Mission poster - The official artwork for this launch that is called Aquila.

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