The National Reconnaissance Office Creeps Spying on you.
U.S. Military Launches Secret Satellite to Test Space Spy Tech
A trailblazing payload for the National Reconnaissance Office successfully rocketed into orbit on a Minotaur 1 booster Sunday, beginning a secret mission testing new ways to collect intelligence from space.
The mission was codenamed NROL-66 in the agency’s rocket acquisition naming system. The payload is also called RPP, which is short for Rapid Pathfinder Program.
“I commend everyone who made this launch successful,” said Robert Brodowski, director of the NRO’s advanced science and technology directorate. “This mission is just one example of our ability to rapidly build and launch small spacecraft with on-orbit capabilities that increase the value of NRO systems to our nation’s future.”
An NRO spokesperson disclosed before launch the payload will demonstrate better ways for U.S. government satellites to gather intelligence. [NROL-66 Launch Photos from Spaceflight Now]
“If you have heard our director speak, one of his priorities is to have a healthy science and technology effort,” said Rick Oborn, an NRO spokesperson. “This particular payload carries some of the work we do in techniques and methods to improve intelligence collection. All part of our work to keep improving the value of our data.”
The U.S. spy satellite agency hasn’t revealed what techniques or sensors the craft will test in space. Its cost, contractor and size are also secret.
But the lightweight payload launched on a Minotaur 1 rocket, the smallest booster used by the NRO since the agency’s existence was declassified in 1992. The Minotaur’s nose cone can fit a spacecraft as large as a kitchen refrigerator, and the four-stage rocket can haul nearly 1,000 pounds into low-altitude polar orbits.
“It is an NRO mission using a small rocket, which would denote a lighter payload,” Oborn told Spaceflight Now. [Related: U.S. Worried About Outer Space Security]
The Minotaur launcher blasted off at 4:26 a.m. local time (7:26 a.m. EST; 1226 GMT) from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The launch was delayed from Saturday by a transmitter glitch in the Air Force’s network of tracking andcommunications equipment.
The six-story rocket swiftly climbed into the predawn sky, breaking the sound barrier seconds later and shedding its powerful first stage a minute after liftoff. Its second stage burned for another minute to propel the rocket nearly 400,000 feet high.
Two more Minotaur stages were supposed to accelerate the vehicle to more than 17,000 mph before deploying the satellite.
An NRO press release Sunday said the launch was successful .
Based on safety information released to mariners and pilots, analysts believe the Minotaur rocket flew south from Vandenberg, dropping its spent rocket motors in the Pacific Ocean and achieving an orbit circling the planet’s poles.
The Minotaur 1’s first and second stages were pulled from stockpiles of decommissioned Minuteman 2 intercontinental ballistic missiles. The smaller Orion 50XL and Orion 38 third and fourth stage motors come from air-launched Pegasus rocket program.
Cobbling together unused government-furnished missile stages and commercially-available upper stage motors make the Minotaur rocket familyan inexpensive launch solution for defense satellites.
The dimensions of the payload’s orbit were unknown Sunday morning.
The spacecraft could be circling in a polar orbit with a ground track nearly perpendicular to the equator, or the Minotaur could have been aiming for a sun-synchronous orbit commonly used by Earth observation satellites. Other types of north-south orbits were also feasible.
Sunday’s launch was the first time an NRO payload flew on a Minotaur rocket.
Most of the organization’s payloads launch on much larger Atlas and Delta rockets. The NRO’s space fleet includes optical and radar reconnaissance missions, communications and eavesdropping spacecraft and ocean surveillance satellites.
The agency usually doesn’t reveal the purpose of an individual payload. Rare exceptions include the STEX space technology experiment satellite and the GeoLITE communications testbed launched in 1998 and 2001.
Bruce Carlson, director of the NRO, told an Air Force Association meeting in September the agency is renewing its commitment to science and technology programs.
Carlson said he was troubled by a drop in science and technology investment when he became director in 2009.
Next year’s NRO budget request will call for more science and technology funding, increasing the agency’s research budget back to historical levels, according to Carlson.
“My plan is that ten years from now, when somebody is standing up here, they’ll be able to say 60 percent of the technology that we put into this [new] satellite came out of our [science and technology] program,” Carlson said in September. “Unlike the Air Force’s and the other services’ science and technology, mine is a little bit more predictable because even though what the particular advances are I don’t know, I know that I’m pretty much going to be doing signals intelligence, I’m going to be doing imaging intelligence, and I’m going to be doing communications.”
The NRO hasn’t reserved any further flights on Minotaur rockets, but future technology demo satellites would best fit on small-class launchers.
The Minotaur 1’s next flight is scheduled from Wallops Island, Va., in May with a satellite for the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space program. Called ORS 1, the spacecraft will carry an electro-optical and infrared sensor to supply battlefield intelligence to U.S. Central Command.
A larger Minotaur 4 booster will also launch in May from Kodiak Island, Alaska, with the TacSat 4 experimental communications satellite.
The next Minotaur launch from Vandenberg is expected in August. It will be a suborbital mission with the second Hypersonic Test Vehicle flight for the Defense Department’s research and development agency.
The Creepy, Kitschy and Geeky Patches of US Spy Satellite Launches
A purple-haired sorceress holding a fireball. A three-headed dragon wrapping its claws around the world. A great raptor emerging from the flames
No, these are not characters from a Magic: The Gathering deck. They are avatars depicted on the official mission patches made for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Just as NASA creates specially designed patches for each mission into space, NRO follows that tradition for its spy satellite launches. But while NASA patches tend to feature space ships and American flags, NRO prefers wizards, Vikings, teddy bears and the all-seeing eye. With these outlandish designs, a civilian would be justified in wondering if NRO is trolling.
Unfortunately, given the agency’s extreme secrecy, it’s impossible to answer that question for sure. But based on information that has been leaked about some of the patches, it seems there may be a method to the artistic madness.
Forged in Secret
Understanding the patches requires a trip back to the 1960s and the early days of the human space program, explains Robert Pearlman, a space historian and the founder of collectSPACE. At the time, NASA allowed its astronauts to name their spacecraft. John Glenn chose Friendship 7, for example, for the Mercury space capsule he piloted when he became the first US astronaut to orbit Earth. Gordon Cooper went with Faith 7 for his spacecraft during the final mission of the Mercury program.
When it came time to launch the Gemini program, however, NASA decided to take away the naming privilege. The astronauts, understandably, were disappointed. So Gemini pilot Cooper asked NASA if they’d be willing to compromise and—in the tradition of military squadrons—allow the crew to design a patch instead. NASA agreed, and since then patches have become a staple for both crewed and robotic NASA flights.
NRO arrived on the space launch scene around the same time that NASA’s first patches were being designed. In 1960, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower established the agency as a central authority for organizing the nation’s reconnaissance operations, and oversight of reconnaissance imaging satellites—spy satellites, in popular parlance—was a big part of that mission. Right from the start, NRO operations were all very cloak-and-dagger. The public didn’t even learn about the agency’s existence until 1971, and its first reconnaissance satellite program, Corona, wasn’t declassified until 1995. “The reconnaissance satellites have been a factor of the space program since the very beginning,” Pearlman says. “But they are indeed classified, and their capabilities are classified.”
Today NRO launches about four to six satellites per year, including the NROL-35 mission, with the patch seen above, slated to fly this Thursday. The public still doesn’t know exactly what each satellite is doing, but for a couple decades now the agency has advertised the date and time of its launches—probably because, as Pearlman points out, “it’s hard to hide a rocket.” In response, a subculture of fervent hobbyists has become committed to watching the skies at night, piecing together the satellites’ orbits. At some point, those hobbyists discovered that—just like NASA—NRO also issues mission patches. The agency didn’t seem to care if the patches were leaked, and eventually it even started publishing depictions of the patches along with launch announcements. Even so, for years knowledge of the patches largely remained confined to enthusiasts, especially in the days prior to widespread social media.
The patches’ relative obscurity changed in 2000, with the launch of a payload known as NROL-11. The mission patch depicted what appeared to be owl eyes peering down at the Earth, where four arrow-shaped vectors, two per orbit, made their way across Africa. Three of the vectors were white, and one was dark. Based solely on studying the design, civilian satellite watcher Ted Molczan hypothesized that the patch showed a failed satellite (the dark vector), and that the newly launched satellite would take its place.
Sure enough, after the launch a new satellite appeared just where Molczan predicted. Pearlman, who reported on the story at the time, says that NRO at first told him “no comment” when he contacted them. About 30 minutes later they called him back and asked him not to publish the story. Pearlman told them no dice, and in the end, the NRO spokesman told him that the patches were just morale-builders for those who work on the launches.
Whether NRO admits it, though, it seemed that NROL-11’s patch had inadvertently revealed classified details about its payload’s whereabouts, and when the story broke, the patches suddenly appeared on the public’s radar. Although the patches were under more scrutiny than ever before, the agency didn’t flinch. Rather than classify them or discontinue the tradition, NRO ramped up its game. Subsequent designs became even more ridiculous, featuring patriotic gorillas or 16th-century ships, for example. The public ate it up. Some—like the 2013 mission heralded by a giant Earth-eating octopus—sparked their own media frenzies, and rip-offs of the most popular designs popped up for sale online. NRO’s new motto seems to be “better to have a more outlandish design than show actual details about the flight,” Pearlman says.
As for their motivations, Pearlman doesn’t think they’re in it just for the lolz. “No, I don’t think they’re playing us,” he says. “If anything, it’s an internal gag. Like, how far can you take it without being reprimanded? Or maybe the patches represent jokes that cropped up in the processing of the satellites, which we’ll never know unless they’re declassified—and maybe not even then.”