11 September 2001
Satellite Arrives in Orbit Riding Atlas
By Jim Banke
Cape Canaveral Bureau
posted: 01:00 pm ET
08 September 2001
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A brand new spy satellite for the United States is circling the planet following an apparently flawless launch atop an Atlas 2AS rocket Saturday.
"We have had payload separation. Everything has been as expected on this flight," said mission commentator Don Spencer. "All the folks here at Vandenberg Air Force Base are thrilled."
The spacecraft is owned and will be operated by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), but that's all that NRO officials will say about their newest asset in space.
Industry observers, however, believe the most likely candidate for the payload is an electronic eavesdropper that is probably the first of a new multi-billion dollar constellation of spy satellites capable of detecting signals from enemy ships, which would help in locating the ships and determining their intent.
The deduction is based on publicly available planning- and budget-related documents, as well as facts about the rocket, its launch time and destination orbit.
If true, these satellites have been under development since the early 1990s and are planned as a follow on to a series of ocean surveillance birds that were often referred to as the Naval Ocean Surveillance System -- or NOSS.
Originally scheduled for launch in the late 1990s, the newest generation of more capable spacecraft -- also referred to as Space Based Wide Area Surveillance System -- are built by Lockheed Martin reportedly to operate against both land- and ocean-based targets.
Previously launched on the larger and more expensive Titan 4, these newly designed satellites are now small enough and light enough to take their ride into space atop the less powerful Atlas 2AS rocket, or in the future atop versions of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle such as the Atlas 5 and Delta 4.
Saturday's shot was the third of five missions the NRO has booked with Atlas launch vehicles, which has now recorded a string of 57 successful flights in a row.
Appropriately enough, the clandestine NRO satellite begin its trip into orbit launching through a thick, low bank of fog, which prevented ground observers and Vandenberg tracking cameras from seeing much before the 156-foot-tall rocket climbed out of sight.
Liftoff of the Lockheed Martin-built booster from Space Launch Complex 4 East came at 11:25 a.m. EDT (1525 GMT) after an essentially trouble free countdown at the Western Range.
"This was a great team effort," said Col. Robert M. Worley II, commander of the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg. "We're all extremely proud that we've completed another successful launch."
By the numbers it was the first launch to orbit this year from California, the third Atlas mission this year and the fifth for International Launch Services, the commercial firm that markets Atlas and Proton launch vehicles for Lockheed Martin and Khrunichev.
Still ahead for the NRO this year are classified satellite launches atop a Titan 4 from Vandenberg on Oct. 1 and atop an Atlas 2 from Cape Canaveral on or about Oct. 10.