ULA to launch a ‘classified spy satellite’ on its most powerful rocket [live stream]

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) initially planned the Delta IV Heavy launch for Thursday, 27 August, but had to postpone to early Friday morning due to heater issues on the launchpad.

ULA Delta IV Heavy mission

When and where

ULA confirmed that the Delta IV Heavy mission has been postponed to the early hours of Friday morning at 1:48 Eastern Time (ET). If you’re viewing from South Africa, it’s all systems go from 7:50 on Friday, 28 August.

This will mark ULA’s most powerful rocket launch – one of only five such rockets in the world – and would include sending a “classified spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office” into orbit.

The Delta IV Heavy – which will be fuelled with 1.76 million litres of superchilled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen – will lift off from the Space Launch Complex 37 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Watch: Delta IV Heavy NROL-44 mission

The live stream will begin at 8:05 on Friday morning.

NROL-44 mission details

The mission is code-named NROL-44. The mission is cloaked in secrecy, and according to the press release:

“NROL-44 supports NRO’s overall national security mission to provide intelligence data to the United States’ senior policymakers, the Intelligence Community and Department of Defense”.

The satellite will be launched on a Delta IV Heavy rocket, a giant vehicle that consists of three rocket cores strapped together to provide extra thrust.

It is one of the most powerful rockets in the world, rivalled only by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. Flying a Delta IV Heavy rocket is a rare occasion as the rockets are very expensive to make.

This launch would also mark the 12th flight of a Delta IV Heavy rocket since its debut in 2004. The Delta IV Heavy is one of the few rockets capable of launching large, heavy satellites into “super-high orbits”.

The sheer size of it all

ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket
Retraction of the Mobile Service Tower has begun. An undercarriage transport system with drive trucks in all four corners of the MST is moving the 33-story building at a top speed of 0.25 miles per hour. Image via Twitter: @ulalaunch explains that shortly before the launch window begins, the tall “shroud encasing the rocket — called the Mobile Service Tower, or MST — will roll away from the colossal craft”.

“Composed of three hydrogen-fueled first-stage common core boosters (which are strapped together) and a cryogenic second stage, the [rocket] stands 71 metres tall and measures approximately 16 metres wide”. 

NRO payloads are known to be heavy and bulky and are designed to “be installed on top of their rockets in a vertical configuration”, rather than horizontal. This would not be possible with any rocket currently on the market.

Think of the payload as a large school bus affixed in an upright position, and you’ll get the idea.

ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket
ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket. Image via Twitter: @ulalaunch Protection Status

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