A massive rocket is expected to launch “the largest satellite in the world” tonight at 6:06 p.m. EST, reports Spaceflight Now. UPDATE: The liftoff was delayed until November 21 when it was successfully launched.
“I believe the payload is the fifth in the series of what we call Mentor spacecraft, a.k.a. Advanced Orion,” said Ted Molczan, a respected sky-watcher who keeps tabs on orbiting spacecraft.
The clandestine payload, known only by its launch identification number of NROL-32, is widely believed to be an eavesdropping spacecraft carrying an antenna that spans up to 100 meters (328 feet), the size of a football field. It is intended to gather electronic intelligence for the National Security Agency, according to Ted Molczan. See: Inside the NSA (FrontLine).
Although NRO satellites are secretive by nature, the spacecraft are visible by just looking up. Molczan is member of Heavens Above, a space tracking group and a mailing list called SeeSat-L that routinely finds and watches spacecraft.
United Launch Alliance‘s Delta 4-Heavy is America’s biggest rocket, capable of lofting the largest and heftiest cargos. The upcoming schedule calls for several more significant launches in the next few months:
- A Delta 4-Heavy rocket for NROL-49 from Vandenberg on January 11
- A Delta 4 rocket for NROL-27 from Cape Canaveral on March 4
- An Atlas 5 for NROL-34 from Vandenberg on March 31
Titan IVs blow up from time to time, creating quite the spectacle. Sigint satellites are interesting because of their engineering innovations, secretive nature, unheralded successes, spectacular failures, and cost.
The EELV program grew from $17 billion to almost $32 billion to subsidize two of America’s biggest aerospace companies, a cost overrun nearly as big as NASA’s annual budget. Lockheed and Boeing agreed to merge their EELV programs, forming the United Launch Alliance in 2006. SpaceX challenged the legality of the venture.
Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) was a program to design a new generation of US reconnaissance satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). In September 2005 the project was canceled after spending nearly $5 billion. Another program, TSAT, the Transformational Satellite communications system, cost U.S. taxpayers $2.5 billion before Secretary Gates pulled its plug. The “Misty” stealth satellite program almost doubled in cost — from $5 billion to nearly $9.5 billion, and has been tracked in space by amateurs. SBIRS missile warning satellites were supposed to cost $4 billion and will now cost over $11 billion.
Two of Boeing’s FIA satellites apparently got launched. The first may have been the billion dollar L-21 (USA 193), a radar sat launched December 14, 2006. It was reported to be dead in orbit almost immediately upon release. On February 21th 2008, a missile fired from the USS Lake Erie destroyed it.
The second FIA bird, a Lacrosse Radar satellite launched in September 2010. It did not blow up immediately on launch.
FIA has been called by The New York Times “perhaps the most spectacular and expensive failure in the 50-year history of American spy satellite projects.” NRO’s projects run billions in the red and years behind schedule, says a 2003 story in US News and World Report.
Charles P. Vick has created some interesting speculative drawings on what some of the larger SIGINT spacecraft could look like.
According to Craig Covalt, instead of remaining parked over one location above the equator, these Vandenberg-launched satellites travel up and down over the northern hemisphere. They can listen into radio communications from different locations or radio waves monitored from different angles, compared with geosynchronous orbit satellites.
The data from these different eavesdroppers is then combined and assessed with other sources of information including that obtained by aircraft such as advanced versions of the U-2.
Besides the U.S. and Russia, China and Japan launch spy satellites. Israel has a spy satellite program, as does NATO, the United Kingdom, and France. The Satellite Wars are heating up with more players entering.
The primary U.S. system for tracking objects in low-Earth orbit is the Air Force Space Surveillance System — known as the Space Fence — which comprises three Very High Frequency radar transmission sites and six receive sites spread across the southern United States.
The International Scientific Optical Network, primarily a Russian venture, has discovered 152 ‘unknown’ objects, likely including classified US satellites, that have no public orbital information in the US catalog.
Chinese satellites can apparently inspect each other, as does the U.S. Air Force’s Space-Based Space Surveillance (SBSS), built by Ball Aerospace and launched by Orbital Sciences. The SBBS mission is to spot and track hostile KillSats.
Most billion dollar satellites can’t loiter. Micro UAVs can. They can use Elemental’s Cloud processing with Amazon Web services for GPU processing in the cloud. Cheaper. Faster. Better. What’s not to like?
We all get to watch.
It’s a big show. What it signifies depends on your viewpoint.
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