Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

Titan 4 rocket expected to launch Lacrosse spy satellite

Posted: August 16, 2000

UPDATE: The launch, originally scheduled for Wednesday, was postponed due to a technical problem.

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - America's most powerful unmanned rocket is aimed at blastoff today from Central California carrying a spy satellite vital to national security, but troublesome winds could postpone the $1.4 billion mission.

The B-28 mission patch. Photo: NRO/Vandenberg AFB
Countdown clocks are ticking toward a scheduled 2345 GMT (4:45 p.m. PDT; 7:45 p.m. EDT) launch for the $358 million Titan 4B rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Watch our Mission Status Center for continuous reports during the final hours of the countdown and launch brought to you live from Vandenberg. We will also have video of the launch.

The exact length of the available launch window in which to get the Lockheed Martin-built booster airborne remains classified. However, the Air Force says the Titan would have to fly before 0200 GMT (7 p.m. PDT; 10 p.m. EDT) or else wait 24 hours.

The main threat against today's launch will be winds at the Space Launch Complex-4 East pad, which are forecast to be gusting between 12 and 16 knots from the northwest. Engineers have set the limit of winds no greater than 14 knots from that particular direction because conditions any stronger could cause the rocket to strike the pad's tower during liftoff.

Air Force Launch Weather Officer Capt. Eric Barela on Tuesday put the odds at a 40 percent chance the winds will ease to permit a launch today.

Should the launch be delayed to Thursday, the winds are expected to remain about the same with again a 40 percent chance of meeting the weather rules.

The launch has been stalled since passing up a mid-July target date after wiring harnesses aboard the rocket had to be rechecked to ensure they weren't damaged by technicians believed to have used the wrong tool during manufacturing; then to replace a leaky hydraulic actuator in a solid rocket booster nozzle needed to steer the vehicle in-flight; and more recently due to an undisclosed issue with the NRO satellite cargo.

"We have resolved all issues," Col. Charles Crain, the Air Force's Titan 4 program manager, said in an interview Monday. "We have a sound launch vehicle and a sound spacecraft."

The Titan 4 rocket's mission, slated to take a coast-hugging trek southeastward away from Vandenberg toward Southern California, should take just 9 minutes and 17 seconds to complete, placing a top-secret payload into low-Earth orbit for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.

Neither the NRO nor Air Force will talk about what is shrouded in the rocket's 66-foot long nose cone or the orbit the Titan is destined to achieve.

But that isn't keeping some space watchers from guessing what the payload might be, especially as details emerge about the size of the rocket's fairing and the planned launch trajectory, which will follow an initial flight azimuth of 160 degrees.

"Assuming that this will not be a launch of a new type of payload, then the available clues point to a Lacrosse payload," said Ted Molczan, an experienced hobbyist satellite observer from Toronto, Canada.

Similar views were expressed by John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. Pike has closely followed classified space launches over the years. The respected magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology also made its prediction in last week's issue, reporting it "could be" a Lacrosse type satellite.

If true, this would be the fourth Lacrosse-type radar imaging spy satellite launched since 1988. Built by Lockheed Martin, these sophisticated 15-ton intelligence-gathering craft probably feature a synthetic aperture radar system to observe strategic targets around the globe in both daylight and darkness from orbital perches 420 miles above Earth. The eyes-in-the-sky can pierce clouds, see objects several feet across and even uncover underground structures like military bunkers.

What is widely believed to be a Lacrosse type satellite in its Lockheed Martin clean room. The picture was captured from NRO video released in 1998 without describing the craft's identity. Photo: NRO video/Spaceflight Now
The first spacecraft of the series, which has been known by several updated codenames including Vega and Onyx, was launched by space shuttle Atlantis in December 1988 from Kennedy Space Center, Florida. The astronauts deployed the 40-foot long, 14-foot diameter satellite into an orbit inclined 57 degrees to either side of the equator.

Two Titan 4 rockets followed from Vandenberg with Lacrosses 2 and 3 -- one in March 1991 and one in October 1997.

Lacrosse 2 was delivered into a 68-degree orbit, allowing the satellite to cover higher latitudes, including northernmost stretches of the Soviet Union. But in 1997, the Titan 4 lofted the third bird into a 57 degree orbit to match that of the initial Lacrosse satellite, which had plummeted back to Earth a few months prior to most recent launch three years ago.

And so another unanswered question surrounding today's launch, assuming the Titan 4 is really carrying a Lacrosse, is which orbital inclination will be used.

Molczan: "Since Lacrosse 2 is by far the older of the orbiting Lacrosses, it is reasonable to speculate that it is the one to be replaced, but will it orbit at the same inclination?"

The 160 degree flight azimuth, or trajectory, released publicly by the Air Force would allow the Titan to reach either inclination by making a left-hand turn during the launch. The rocket's flight path in the first minutes of the launch is restricted to ensure the massive Titan 4 doesn't soar above heavily populated land areas, such as Los Angeles, which could be showered with debris if a mishap occurred.

The experts say either inclination is plausible since the U.S. government might not need radar-imaging coverage over the Arctic anymore with the Cold War's end, permitting a 57 inclination. But the NRO could want to continue the Lacrosse constellation of two satellites in different orbits.

No matter what is launched and which orbit the spacecraft ends up, a band of satellite observers around the world will find it.

"That could happen within days of the launch, but it could take weeks. Lacrosse 3 was first observed less than 24 hours after launch," Molczan said.

Flight data file
Vehicle: Titan 4B (B-28)
Payload: Classified NRO cargo
Launch date: August 17, 2000
Launch time: approx. 2345 GMT (7:45 p.m. EDT)
Launch site: SLC-4E, Vandenberg AFB, Calif.

Video vault
What is believed to be a Lacrosse radar imaging spy satellite is seen in a Lockheed Martin clean room in 1998. This could be the same craft being launched.
  PLAY (157k, 19sec QuickTime file)
From our history archives is the October 1997 launch of a Titan 4 rocket with the third Lacrosse radar imaging satellite for the NRO.
  PLAY (214k, 24sec QuickTime file)
Look back into our history file and watch a U.S. Air Force Titan 4 rocket lift off in daylight from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
  PLAY (201k, 22sec QuickTime file)
Download QuickTime 4 software to view this file.

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

Titan 4B - Description of America's most powerful unmanned rocket.