Atlas V / NRO L-30 – launches, but sends payloads to wrong orbit

by Chris Bergin

An Atlas V launch vehicle has launched on the second attempt, carrying the military satellite NRO L-30 for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), following a series of range issues at the Cape Canaveral launch site which caused a scrub on Thursday.

The Centaur upper stage failed to inject the two spacecraft into their correct orbit, following an earlier than expected end to the second burn. However, they will be able to reach their desired orbit via their own thrusters.


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First Scrub and Preview:

After being delayed on May 3rd and again on May 18th for what were believed to be payload readiness issues, Atlas V AV-009 finally rolled out to the launch pad midday Wednesday as part of the launch preparations for classified NROL-30 mission.

Few details are known about the payload, however it has been speculated in Aviation Week and Space Technology (April, 2007) that the Atlas V will launch a pair of satellites that will be used for ocean surveillance.

The launch countdown was started on Wednesday night for a targeted liftoff time of 11:18 am EDT on Thursday morning. The countdown appeared to be proceeding smoothly, with the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC) reporting no technical issues.

At approximately T-1 hour in the countdown, however, the Range reported a problem with one of the down-range tracking stations. Apparently one of the required tracking posts had gone offline. The countdown proceeded to a planned 10 minute hold at the T-4 minute mark as the range continued to work the issue.

The Range then gave a ‘go’ for launch shortly before the 10 minute hold was to expire, but the launch was then unexpectedly delayed until 11:22 am EDT at first, and then 11:44 am EDT a few minutes later. As the new launch time approached, the Range again gave a ‘go’ for launch. All appeared well as the Launch Director began the launch readiness poll at 11:38am, two minutes before the hold was to expire.

All systems reported a ‘go’ for launch, but the Range again reported a ‘no-go.’ The Launch Director immediately scrubbed the launch. Since details regarding the launch window and count-down timeline were not given, it is assumed that the end of the day’s launch window had been reached.

The launch has now been rescheduled for tomorrow at 11:04 am EDT, which will probably put the close of the window at around 11:30 am EDT.

This mission will be the first time that the Atlas V has carried a payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the government branch that is responsible for the United States’ fleet of spy satellites.

The rocket will be flying in the 401 configuration using a 4-meter payload fairing, no strap-on solid rocket boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper-stage. This will be the 10th flight for the Atlas V rocket, and the third with the Buy 2 redundant avionics packages on the Centaur.

The Atlas V was developed by Lockheed-Martin (now part of ULA) as part of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Its maiden flight was a commercial satellite launch on August 21, 2002.

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