Washington: The United States is set to launch a giant “eavesdropping satellite” using the most powerful launch vehicle available. In a scheduled blastoff from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Thursday, the classified satellite will be taken into the Earth’s orbit by the United Launch Alliance (ULA)’s powerful Delta IV Heavy rocket.
Featuring three core boosters, the rocket will generate more than 2 million pounds (907 tons) of thrust to lift the 15,000-pound (6.8 tons) cargo on an order from the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
According to amateur spacecraft observers studying NRO missions, the satellite is probably the seventh of a type called Mentor or Advanced Orion. The Orion class of spy satellites is developed in coordination with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and act as replacements for the preceding Magnum satellite network.
Featuring very large radio dishes, the satellites are designed to collect signals intelligence (SIGNIT) from space. Both NRO and ULA officials have kept mum about the nature of the mission and to further ensure the mission’s secrecy, the full launch window has not been released.
The ULA will also black out its live launch broadcast about five minutes after the liftoff. This comes as no surprise since the NRO, which describes itself as “America’s eyes and ears in space,” refuses to discuss its missions.
“Frequently, NRO systems are the only collectors able to access critical areas of interest, and data from overhead sensors provides unique information and perspectives not available from other sources,” the agency says on its website.
The NRO has been the most frequent costumer of the Delta IV Heavy rocket since 2012, when it first used it. In Its last Delta IV Heavy flight in late 2014, the NRO put a prototype Orion crew capsule into orbit for NASA and Lockheed Martin, at a cost of $375 million.
The launch will be the Delta IV rocket’s 32nd since its debut in 2002, and the 9th by the heavy-lift version that was introduced in 2004.