The most powerful Atlas 5 rocket launches the national security mission – Spaceflight Now
to update: Atlas 5 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Pad 41 at 8:47 a.m. EDT (1247 UTC).
United Launch Alliance (ULA) is preparing to launch its penultimate national security mission using one of its Atlas 5 rockets. The mission, dubbed NROL-107, or Silentbarker, is scheduled to lift off at 8:47 a.m. EDT (1247 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Sunday morning’s launch comes after a one-day delay from Saturday’s planned launch after ULA discovered what it described as “an issue found during a pre-launch ordnance circuit continuity check” in the lead-up to the refueling operation.
As of ULA’s latest update at 4:05 a.m. EDT (0805 UTC), the countdown was progressing well, indicating that “all systems remain operational” here at the Advanced Space Flight Operations Center and at the complex Space Launch-41 Band-Aids.”
Earlier in the morning, they reported that the weather forecast for the launch was 90 percent favorable for an on-time liftoff.
“The light southerly flow causes most of the diurnal rain and storm activity to be concentrated over the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean,” ULA said in a statement.
The update follows a forecast from the 45th Weather Squadron, which issued its latest weather brief on Saturday, citing cumulonimbus clouds as the only potential factor limiting the launch from a weather standpoint. As of Saturday, if needed, the 24-hour backup weather forecast shows an 85 percent chance of suitable weather for takeoff.
“Monitoring” in space
The SilentParker mission has been described as a “watchdog” of sorts in geosynchronous orbit, a pocket of space located about 24,000 to 40,000 kilometers above the surface. In the run-up to Sunday’s mission, National Reconnaissance Office Director Dr. Christopher Schooles said the Silentbarker program would allow them and their partners at the US Space Systems Command to better track more and smaller objects in Earth’s orbit.
“You’ve heard about communications satellites moving from one location to another to provide better coverage of other areas. Of course, we want to be able to see that, so we know what’s going on in that area,” Scoles said during a press conference on August 28. “But we also want to “To know if something is happening that is unexpected or shouldn’t happen and could pose a threat to a high-value asset, whether our own or one of our allies.”
The program moved from concept to development over a period of approximately five years. The NRO and SSC had overlapping interests in improving their GEO capabilities and established a collaboration that later became Silentbarker.
There is some discrepancy over the total cost of operations with the Air Force’s fiscal year 2021 budget document estimating costs at approximately $1.19 billion through fiscal year 2025 and an April 2023 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimating program costs at approximately $994 million.
The program will consist of at least two missions, the first being NROL-107, which consists of multiple payloads. Officials refused to go into further details.
“Today, we rely primarily on our ground-based radars. Our ground-based radars are very impressive, but they can only see a basketball-sized object in space. Because of the challenges of day, night and weather,” Lt. Gen. Michael Goettlin said during the Aug. 28 press conference. “It becomes very difficult to maintain those things.”
“So, by actually moving the sensor into the orbit of those objects, we can actually not only detect smaller objects, but we can preserve them as well. And when they act out of the ordinary, we get indications and warnings that there is something here.”
Sunday’s launch will also be the last time ULA uses an Atlas 5 rocket to launch a mission for the NRO before moving to the Vulcan rocket. They have another national security mission aboard the Atlas 5. USSF-51 is expected to launch in 2024 with a more specific date coming soon.
“It’s our mission that we were designed to do, so it’s a fitting way to end it,” said Torey Bruno, ULA president and CEO. “It means a lot to our guys. You’ll see people with a little tear in the corner of their eye.”