Update, 6:10 p.m.: Today’s scheduled launch was scrubbed due to extremely cloudy weather. It has been rescheduled for 1:51 p.m. Eastern on Saturday.
United Launch Alliance will launch a spy satellite into orbit aboard its huge Delta IV-Heavy rockets this afternoon at 1:59 p.m. Eastern time, and all the action will be streaming here. The images of the rocket piercing the sky at Cape Canaveral will likely be the last we see of the satellite, commissioned by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), to boost the eavesdropping and surveillance capabilities the United States clandestine services.
The NRO has commissioned five clandestine satellites to travel to space with ULA this year alone, but only Thursday’s mission requires the Delta IV-Heavy rocket, the largest operational booster in the arsenal of America’s spaceflight companies. ULA has successfully completed nine Heavy launches since 2002, pointing to their history as one of the earlier private entities to begin offering rocket rides to the government.
Competitors like SpaceX have only managed to challenge ULA’s dominance recently by developing rockets that return the first stage booster to Earth, allowing the company to charge cut-rate prices for their services. (SpaceX’s own Falcon Heavy rocket is expected to launch for the first time later this year.)
The secretive NRO satellite requires a geosynchronous orbit, meaning the probe goes beyond low-earth orbit and remains in the same spot relative to the Earth. Geosynchronous orbits have the advantage of offering satellites a consistent view of a certain part of the world, but are the most difficult to reach. The NROL-37 mission is expected to orbit the Earth at over 22,000 miles from the planet’s surface. With just under 15,000 pounds of clandestine payload to ferry out that far, the Delta IV Heavy was the only rocket currently available to make the haul.
“I believe the payload is the seventh in the series of what we call Mentor spacecraft, a.k.a. Advanced Orion, which gather signals intelligence from inclined geosynchronous orbits. They are among the largest satellites ever deployed,” said Ted Molczan, a respected sky-watcher who keeps tabs on orbiting spacecraft told Spaceflight Now.
It’s a necessarily secretive operation, but the launch itself will be entirely public. With three rockets, the Delta IV-Heavy will initially launch to low-earth orbit, then fire again to reach GEO Transit Orbit, and then once more to arrive at its final destination.
None of the Heavy rocket components will be reused, but as of now this system remains the most effective current method for reaching the outer limits of Earth’s orbit. It’s a pretty big blast.