Today’s United Launch Alliance spy satellite launch isn’t as unusual as you might think. Just this year, ULA will send five clandestine satellites into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). But today’s launch will be more unique than the other four.
Here’s what we know
NROL-37 will sit atop a Delta IV-Heavy rocket at launch. The type of rocket hints at where today’s spy satellite launch is heading – geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). Here’s what a regular Delta IV Medium rocket looks like (there are several different configurations, but they don’t differ all that much).
Now, here’s the Delta IV Heavy rocket.
The obvious difference is the Heavy variation sports two additional boosters.
Both rockets can place payloads in GTO, but the size of the payload varies big time. The Delta IV Medium can place a 9,280-pound payload in GTO. The Delta IV Heavy increases that to 30,440 pounds. The low-Earth orbit (LEO) payloads sit at 20,250 pounds and 62,540 pounds, respectively.
Note: The payload numbers vary on ULA’s website. A separate page shows payload performance for LEO at 49,740 pounds and GTO at 28,620 pounds.
Either the National Reconnaissance Orbit satellite is extremely heavy, or it’s going into GTO. (It’s going to GTO)
What will NROL-37 do? All we have is the mission description via ULA: The mission will be launched for National Reconnaissance Office in support of national defense. Translation? It’s a spy satellite built to do spy things.
A geosynchronous orbit is perfect for an intelligence gathering satellite. Because the orbit is designed to match Earth’s rotation, NROL-37 will always be above the same point on Earth. This orbit is common in other satellites too including weather and communications.
Watch it live. At 1:59 pm ET, the Delta IV Heavy will lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Space Launch Complex 37B. That’s the plan anyways. The launch window is from 1:59 – 6:35 pm ET. But the weather might not cooperate. ULA says there’s a 40% chance of favorable weather for today’s launch.