Next mission with classified payload to support national security of United States Of America by United Launch Alliance; launch date of NROL-61 mission is getting close, payload still is covered with secret; although we can take a closer look on launch vehicle, weather forecast and gossips and assumes on character of the payload.

Launch is planned on 28th July 2016 from Cape Canaveral AFS; designated launch site is Space Launch Complex SLC-41. At the moment we know that payload was probably already installed under fairing. Launch vehicle is also unusual, comparing to previous missions contracted for National Reconnaissance Office. Atlas V will be launched in 421 configuration what means that:

  • Payload fairing will have 4 meters in diameter with length at 12.9 m
  • Core of the rocket will be supported by two additional Solid Rocket Boosters
  • Centaur upper stage will be equipped with single RL-10A engine

It is very unusual configuration of Atlas V- it will be used for the sixth time by ULA in whole history of Atlas V launches; during 44 previous missions for National Reconnaissance Office it was never utilized, what makes identification of the payload even harder. For the moment still FAA have not announced NOTAM for 28th July, so any assumptions based on the flight trajectory are impossible. According to some sources this time it will be next generation of Quasar satellite. Last Quasar (third generation) was also launched from SLC-41 (NROL-33 on 22 May 2014) on atop of Atlas V (401). These satellites are basically data relay spacecrafts, which are operating on GEO orbit (39000 km x 300 km) and are supporting reconnaissance satellites in contact with polar stations. Whole system is called SDS (Satellite Data System) and started operating in 1976 with delivering to orbit first satellite manufactured by Hughes. Until now 19 satellites were delivered to orbit: first generation with 7 satellites were launched on atop of Titan III in years: 1976-1987; second generation was mostly delivered by Space Shuttle (3 missions) with one launch on atop of Titan IV in years: 1989-1996. Third generation was delivered on atop of Atlas II, Atlas V and Delta IV in years 1998-2014. We can see that between generations brake was no longer than 2 years what could also points that during NROL-61 another fourth generation Quasar satellite will be delivered to orbit.

Rocket will be rolled out with encapsulated payload on 26th July, 2016. It was preceded by integrating payload and covering it with fairing (it was planned for the last week before launch) and joining first stage with interstage and mounting Centaur upper stage on atop. First stage was already delivered on Friday, July 22 and was put on the mobile launch platform.

At the moment official weather forecast for Cape Canaveral shows that launch probability is around 80%. Predicted temperature will be 32°C, with SE wind blowing with speed of 22 km/h. Probability of storms is described as 40%.