Atlas soars on secret mission under cover of darkness

Posted: December 2, 2003

A Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket carried out a clandestine mission in the predawn darkness today, deploying into space what is believed to be a package of ocean surveillance satellites to aid the U.S. government track suspicious ships in the global fight against terrorism.

The Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket lifts off from Vandenberg this morning. Photo: Thomas Rogers/ILS
Lifting off right on time at 1004 GMT (2:04 a.m. local time; 5:04 a.m. EST), the 16-story tall booster slowly rose from its Space Launch Complex 3-East pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. It marked the third and final Atlas 2AS vehicle to fly from the West Coast.

About 74 minutes later, the secret National Reconnaissance Office payload was released from the Centaur upper stage to complete the launch, extending the Atlas rocket's string of successful missions to 67 over the past 10 years.

Now, a group of amateur satellite trackers around the world will have their eyes on the sky to spot the newly-launched spacecraft. In doing so, they hope to solve a two-year-old mystery about the satellites.

The most recent Atlas rocket flown from Vandenberg, on September 8, 2001, lifted a payload thought to be surveillance craft like the ones launched this morning. The satellites are believed to be part of a network commonly referred to as Naval Ocean Surveillance System, or NOSS.

Eleven previous NOSS missions launched successfully between 1971 and 1996 all consisted of three satellites orbiting in a close triangular formation, said Ted Molczan, an experienced and respected hobbyist satellite observer from Toronto, Canada.

But just two satellites were released into orbit by the 2001 Atlas launch.

"Though the 2001 launch deployed only two NOSS, I have always believed that three were onboard, and that one of them failed to separate," said Molczan.

Later today, Molczan says amateur observers will have their first shot at seeing how many craft -- two or three -- were deployed in this morning's launch.

"Fortunately, most of the active/best observers will be in a visibility window, so all we need is for someone to have a clear sky, or a fortuitous hole in the clouds, as sometimes happens."

The National Reconnaissance Office -- the secretive government agency responsible for designing and operating the U.S. fleet of spy satellites -- uses the NOSS spacecraft to keep tabs on ships around the globe.

The trade magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology says the vital role that NOSS serves has 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 in this week's issue.

Flying in the shape of a triangle, the three NOSS satellites from each launch work together to determine the positions of vessels below.

"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," Aviation Week reported.

"They are believed to detect radio transmissions from ships at sea, and analyze the signals to triangulate on the precise location of the transmitter. This enables the U.S. government to locate and track foreign vessels of interest," Molczan says.

"Although I have no expert knowledge of the operation of the NOSS, it is my belief that three satellites are required to most accurately determine the position of transmitters, so the unprecedented deployment of only two NOSS after the 2001 launch was a great surprise," Molczan added.

"Hobbyists closely tracked both NOSS (in 2001) as they maneuvered into their final orbits. During the first couple of months after launch, both made several small maneuvers that varied the distance between them. For a short time, they were 1500 km apart, then gradually moved to within the normal 60 km distance. I speculate that the changes in distance may have been experiments to determine the optimal spacing of the two spacecraft, to salvage as much ship-locating accuracy as possible, after the loss of the third spacecraft."

Molczan and his fellow observers, linked by the Internet, will be watching to see if that 2001 launch was a partial failure or simply a surprise to the civilian world.

"(This) launch should settle the question of the intended number of satellites. The probability of a second consecutive deployment failure must be incredibly small, so if once again we see only two NOSS, then that must be the intended number. I expect three, but we'll know soon enough."

For the Lockheed Martin Atlas team, attention now turns to the scheduled December 15 launch of a Russian-powered Atlas 3B rocket carrying a U.S. Navy communications satellite from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The Vandenberg launch pad used this morning will now undergo extensive modifications for use by larger Atlas 5 rocket family starting in 2005. The Space Launch Complex 3-East pad was rebuilt in the 1990s to support Atlas 2AS rockets, serving as the starting point for three missions. The first carried the flagship of NASA's Earth Observing System, the Terra spacecraft, in December 1999; the second lofted an NRO cargo in September 2001.

The forthcoming renovations will include raising the mobile service tower 30 feet to accommodate the taller vehicles, building a fixed launch platform for the rockets to sit upon, modifying the umbilical tower and enlarging the flame trench.

Earlier this year, the Air Force awarded five Vandenberg launches to Atlas 5, two taken away from Boeing's Delta 4 as punishment for the EELV stolen document scandal and three new missions. Had the Pentagon not booked the launches with Lockheed Martin, over 40 years of Atlas launches from Vandenberg would have concluded with this morning's liftoff.

"I think there would been a lot more sadness on this one if the Atlas 5 hadn't been announced last summer," Maj. Tom Steele, the Air Force launch director, said in an interview.

"With that announcement we don't have time to really look back, we only have time to look forward," he added. "I don't think we even have time to have a party. We have work to do for the future."

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