October 1, 2020

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After lengthy delays, ULA’s most powerful rocket poised to launch classified spy satellite

After lengthy delays, ULA’s most powerful rocket poised to launch classified spy satellite
After many weeks of delays due to faulty equipment and bad weather, the United Launch Alliance is set to launch its most powerful rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, lofting a classified spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office. The mission is finally ready to fly a full month after the rocket’s first launch attempt, which…

After many weeks of delays due to faulty equipment and bad weather, the United Launch Alliance is set to launch its most powerful rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, lofting a classified spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office. The mission is finally ready to fly a full month after the rocket’s first launch attempt, which was aborted just three seconds before liftoff.

The rocket going up on ULA’s mission is the Delta IV Heavy, a giant vehicle that consists of three rocket cores strapped together to provide extra thrust. It’s one of the most powerful rockets in the world, though it falls short of the power packed into SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. ULA doesn’t fly the Delta IV Heavy very often, as it’s an expensive vehicle to make, but the company uses the rocket for large, heavy satellites headed to super-high orbits.

The rocket’s payload is NROL-44, and like all NRO missions, its purpose is cloaked in secrecy. The office simply notes that “NROL-44 supports NRO’s overall national security mission to provide intelligence data to the United States’ senior policymakers, the Intelligence Community and Department of Defense.” ULA has already launched 29 missions for the NRO, many of which have required the Delta IV Heavy.

ULA was all set to launch NROL-44 in the wee hours of the morning on August 29th. ULA counted all the way down to just seconds before liftoff, with the Delta IV Heavy’s main engines briefly igniting. But the engines quickly shut off and the rocket remained fixed on the launchpad. ULA later learned a piece of ground equipment had failed, prompting the abort. It took the company a few weeks to replace the faulty equipment.

Further problems with equipment on the launchpad pushed back the launch time again, but ULA is hoping to get off the ground this week. Unfortunately the weather has not been agreeable, with bad conditions delaying attempts on Monday and Tuesday. But at last, there’s a 70 percent chance that the weather will cooperate for launch tonight — so perhaps today is the day.

The Delta IV Heavy is scheduled to lift off on Tuesday at 11:54PM ET from ULA’s launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. ULA’s launch blog will begin at 3:15PM ET, and its webcast will begin at 11:34PM ET, for anyone who is still awake and hoping to catch a midnight launch.

Update September 30th, 3:00PM ET: This post has been updated from an older post, after multiple launch delays.

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