*Hint: The video is at the bottom, but you'll get more out of it if you first read the rest of this article.
The NRO is one of America's 17 intelligence community agencies and is responsible for building and maintaining our fleet of spy satellites. It has carried out many launches in recent years, yet none were as secretive as this one. The 19-story Atlas roared skyward on nearly a million pounds of thrust. In the video, you'll witness the first stage firing off the pad for four minutes before shutting down and separating, leaving the hydrogen-fueled Centaur upper stage to light its engine and continue the push to orbit. Centaur is designed for use as the upper stage of launch vehicles and will boost the spy satellite into final orbit. Centaur was the world's first high-energy upper stage, burning liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid oxygen (LOX). Shortly after the ignition, the no-longer-needed nose cone shrouding the payload was jettisoned.
On the video, you can hear in the background continual updates on the rocket's journey, but they all fall silent after the first stage shuts down. Why? Because this particular spy satellite is so secretive that noyone would learn of the spacecraft's health and progress or of the success or failure of the Centaur completing its engine burns and deployment of the top secret payload. This OSINT information makes for a great
deduction that this spy satellite is particularly critical, since such info in the past was readily broadcast freely for other NRO launches.
The NRO codenamed this Atlas rocket launch "Scorpius" and the mission logo was displayed on the rocket's nose cone featuring a scorpion with a phrase translated to mean, "Beware Of Our Sting".
The spy satellite will take a Molniya-style orbit (elliptical) stretching from about 500 miles to 25,000 miles at an inclination of 63 degrees. While we're all sleeping soundly or going about our daily routine, Scorpius will activate and become a data relay satellite. She'll intercept and route information from polar-orbiting photo reconnaissance spacecraft to ground receivers. The U.S. has a polar orbiting satellite that passes above both of the earth's poles on each revolution and is in a low earth orbit. The only difference is that a satellite in polar orbit travels a north-south direction, rather than the more common east-west direction.
What does this polar orbit mean? The super-secret spy satellites can view the entire planet's surface. As she orbits above us in a north-south direction, the Earth is spinning beneath in an east-west direction. The result? Our NSA bird will eventually scan the the entire surface. Its like pealing an orange in one piece. Around and around, one strip at a time, until we have incredible and detailed data on any point on Earth. The NSA bird will, literally, monitor the world stage.
The Atlas rocket ascent you see in the video is in a northeast trajectory off the launch pad. It roared above the east coast of the U.S. and is similar to earlier Atlas missions bound for a Molniya orbit. Experts say the liftoff appeared timed to intercept the orbit occupied by an aging SDS communications satellite put into orbit years ago.
Launch of Super-Secret Spy Satellite
Robert Morton, M.Ed., Ed.S. is a member of the Association For Intelligence Officers (AFIO) and writes about the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). A portion of the Ad revenues from this site is donated to the AFIO. His ideas are his own and do not represent any organization he's a member of. We welcome your ideas and comments on OSINT. Contact us on the secure Bpath Mail Form.