Massive Delta IV rocket launches classified satellite

The satellite is likely the latest member of America's spy satellite system

A Delta IV Heavy rocket just after lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 11:03am PDT on August 28, 2013, carrying a classified payload believed to be a U.S. spy satellite. Screengrab from feed supplied by United Launch Alliance.

A Delta IV Heavy rocket just after lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 11:03am PDT on August 28, 2013, carrying a classified payload believed to be a U.S. spy satellite. Screengrab from feed supplied by United Launch Alliance.

A powerful Delta IV Heavy rocket launched a classified reconnaissance satellite into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California Wednesday.

The launch took place under clear skies at 11:03 a.m. Pacific Time (18:03 GMT) and everything appeared to be going to plan up to the point at which the second stage of the rocket ignited six minutes into the flight. At that point TV coverage was ended at the request of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which will operate the satellite. (See video of the launch on YouTube.)

No details on the satellite have been released except that it will be operated by the NRO. The office is charged with providing "innovative overhead intelligence systems for national security," in other words: spy satellites.

That's one of the clues to the satellite likely being the newest member of the NRO's Keyhole spy satellite network.

Other clues lie in the warnings sent out to mariners that detail three areas of the Pacific Ocean into which the spent rocket stages will fall back to Earth.

The drop zones provide an indication of the rocket's launch trajectory and that, combined with the launch time, can be used to establish the likely orbit. It's one that closely aligns with the four Keyhole KH11 satellites currently in space, according to Robert Christy, writing on his respected Zarya blog.

The satellite will apparently be launched into a sun-synchronous orbit -- one that's favored for intelligence gathering because it brings the satellite over any point on Earth at the same time each day. That makes it easier to compare images from one day to the next.

Once launched, it will be up to amateur satellite analysts like Christy to confirm its orbit. U.S. Space Command does not include domestic spy satellites on its Space Track service that catalogs satellites and other man-made objects in orbit.

The first KH11 satellite was launched in 1976 and was America's first spy satellite to use digital imaging. Previous generations of satellites had used rolls of film that were dropped back to Earth on parachutes and snagged by planes as they plummeted down.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags popular scienceUnited Launch Alliance

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Martyn Williams

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Bang and Olufsen Beosound Stage - Dolby Atmos Soundbar

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

ASUS ROG, ACRONYM partner for Special Edition Zephyrus G14

Learn more >

Sony WF-1000XM3 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Nakamichi Delta 100 3-Way Hi Fi Speaker System

Learn more >

Family Friendly

Philips Sonicare Diamond Clean 9000 Toothbrush

Learn more >

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit for Nintendo Switch

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

SunnyBunny Snowflakes 20 LED Solar Powered Fairy String

Learn more >

Teac 7 inch Swivel Screen Portable DVD Player

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?