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October 8th, 2015

NRO Payload + 13 CubeSats Make For Obit After Liftoff Via ULA Atlas V With Orbital ATK Contributions

[Satnews] A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and 13 CubeSats lifted off from Space Launch Complex-3 October 8 at 5:49 a.m. PDT.

The launch of NROL-65 from Vandenberg AFB by

United Launch Alliance.


Designated NROL-55, the mission is in support of national defense. This is ULA’s 10th launch in 2015 and the 101st successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006. The Atlas V rocket also delivered 13 Government Rideshare Advanced Concepts Experiment (GRACE) CubeSats to orbit. The nine NRO-sponsored CubeSats and four NASA-sponsored CubeSats were mounted to the Aft-Bulkhead Carrier located on the back end of the Centaur upper stage.

The 13 CubeSats were developed by Aerospace Corporation, the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Center, Tyvak, SRI International, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Salish Kootenai College, AMSAT and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Weighing 1-5 kilograms, they are developed, launched and controlled at a fraction of the cost of a typical operating satellite.

The NRO payload and GRACE CubeSats were launched aboard an Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) 401 configuration vehicle, which includes a 4-meter-diameter payload fairing. The Atlas booster for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The NROL satellite is believed to be a KH-11 (Kennan) reconnaissance satellite. This platform conducts electro-optical reconnaissance of Earth from a Sun-Synchronous, near polar, LEO.

Artistic rendition of the KH-11 (Kennan) satellite.

ULA's next launch is the Atlas V Global Positioning System (GPS) IIF-11 satellite for the U.S. Air Force, scheduled for Oct. 30 from Space Launch Complex-41 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The EELV program was established by the U.S. Air Force to provide assured access to space for Department of Defense and other government payloads. The commercially developed EELV program supports the full range of government mission requirements, while delivering on schedule and providing significant cost savings over the heritage launch systems.

The next NRO launch is on schedule for early 2016, also from Vandenberg.

Orbital ATK, Inc. supported this ULA Atlas V successful launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The rocket launched a classified satellite, designated NROL-55, for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office in support of a national defense mission.

Using advanced fiber placement manufacturing and automated inspection techniques, Orbital ATK produced the 10-foot diameter composite heat shield on the ULA Atlas V rocket, which provides essential protection for the first stage of the launch vehicle from engine exhaust temperatures in excess of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The large composite structure was fabricated at Orbital ATK's Iuka, Mississippi, facility. This is the 58th Atlas V launch using Orbital ATK-built composite structures.

This flight marked the 23nd successful flight of the Orbital ATK retro motors. Eight of these solid motors provided thrust for separation of the spent first stage. The ULA Atlas V retrorocket is built at Orbital ATK's Elkton, Maryland, facility.

Executive Comments

Photo of the NROL-65 launch from Vandenberg AFB is courtesy of United Launch Alliance.

“Congratulations on today’s successful launch of NROL-55! ULA is honored to have collaborated with the NRO Office of Space Launch and the Air Force on the integration and launch of the NROL-55 spacecraft to orbit with our Atlas V vehicle,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs. “Launches like this only happen with exceptional teamwork by an extremely talented team and a one-launch-at-a-time focus on mission success. The GRACE CubeSats will perform missions demonstrating tracking technologies, software-defined radio communications and will also conduct other measurements and experiments. We are happy that ULA could play a part in bringing these nano-satellites to orbit along with the NRO payload through a cost-effective rideshare.”

“I commend everyone who made this launch successful. This launch adds another powerful mechanism to the nation’s security toolkit. It also demonstrates the efficiencies of CubeSat rideshare on an NRO mission. This mission is a great example of how NRO, NASA, the Air Force, and our academic colleagues collaborate to amplify innovative technology to support the nation,” said Colonel Clint Hunt, USAF, Director, NRO Office of Space Launch.

“Orbital ATK-produced structures and components on the ULA Atlas V launch vehicle contributed to another successful launch today,” said Scott Lehr, President of Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group. “Our products play a vital role in delivering on mission commitments critical to national security.”


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