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Space United States Science

US Launches Largest Spy Satellite Ever 213

Ponca City, We Love You writes "Space.com reports that over the weekend, a giant booster – a Delta 4 Heavy rocket — carrying a secret new spy satellite for the US National Reconnaissance Office roared into space to deliver into orbit what one reconnaissance official has touted as 'the largest satellite in the world.' The Delta 4 Heavy rocket is the biggest unmanned rocket currently in service and has 2 million pounds of thrust, capable of launching payloads of up to 24 tons to low-Earth orbit and 11 tons toward the geosynchronous orbits used by communications satellites. The mammoth vehicle is created by taking three Common Booster Cores — the liquid hydrogen-fueled motor that forms a Delta 4-Medium's first stage — and strapping them together to form a triple-barrel rocket, and then adding an upper stage. The exact purpose of the new spy satellite NROL-32 is secret, but is widely believed to be an essential eavesdropping spacecraft that requires the powerful lift provided by the Delta 4-Heavy to reach its listening post. 'I believe the payload is the fifth in the series of what we call Mentor spacecraft, a.k.a. Advanced Orion, which gather signals intelligence from inclined geosynchronous orbits,' says Ted Molczan, a respected sky-watcher who keeps tabs on orbiting spacecraft. Earlier models of the series included an unfurling dish structure about 255 feet in diameter with a total spacecraft mass of about 5,953.5 pounds, costing about $750 million and designed to monitor specific points or objects of interest such as ballistic missile flight test telemetry."
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US Launches Largest Spy Satellite Ever

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  • Oops (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rakuen ( 1230808 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @03:37PM (#34309348) Homepage
    The new secret spy satellite isn't much of a secret anymore...
  • by Wyatt Earp ( 1029 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @03:51PM (#34309546)

    The problem isn't erroneous information, its that the fuel runs low so they can't be retasked or have orbits boosted (in the case of LEO satellites) as often, power levels drop as the solar panels get older and they enter safe modes more often than they were designed for.

    The follow on satellite designs and programs were delayed and costs overran, thats why they are being used longer and longer.

  • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @03:53PM (#34309574) Homepage
    Cool. They've managed to get the Shuttle up to geosynchronous orbit. Did they put Bruce Willis aboard?
  • Re:Will it.. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by LWATCDR ( 28044 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @04:07PM (#34309728) Homepage Journal

    Actually it might. This is a sigint/comint bird. Not really much of leak since it is a big honking satellite on a Delta 4 heavy with a Centaur upper stage launched from the Cape.
    Really that was a given. This can pick up just about any wireless communication so yes it may find Bin Laden and it may stop a terrorist attack. It may do a lot of things.
    Sigint/Commint is has been very useful for a very long time.

    In fact looking at your email address you may want to look up your own nation's history. A good part of the reason that you are not speaking German is because of commint.

  • Re:Will it.. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dpilot ( 134227 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @04:16PM (#34309838) Homepage Journal

    commint? .uk email address?

    That's a total Enigma to me.

  • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Monday November 22, 2010 @04:54PM (#34310266) Homepage Journal

    Nathaniel hawthorne knew that in 1850. [ibiblio.org]

  • by Joshua Fan ( 1733100 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:13PM (#34310444) Homepage
    ...that means it's really a weapons platform. Just like all "communications satellites" are spy satellites.
  • Re:Oops (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rtb61 ( 674572 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:50PM (#34310894) Homepage

    Hard to tell with the professionally paranoid, how do you know this one isn't designed to look out rather than in, something they are not likely to admit any time soon.

  • Re:Oops (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Caerdwyn ( 829058 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:54PM (#34310948) Journal

    And the Hubble is based on a KH12 [wikipedia.org] spy satellite, just pointed in the opposite direction. In fact, it's so close in design that it shared the same optical flaw as an early KH12 design. The NSA and NRO (who knew about the defect because they'd already had problems with it with their own satellites) debated on whether to tell NASA; if they did they'd be essentially publishing the specs of the KH12 to the world (NASA is incapable of keeping a secret), but if they didn't then NASA would have a defective instrument. They chose the latter, and were thoroughly roasted for it (the repairs to the Hubble were a billion-dollar proposition and a public embarrassment), though of course revealing exact intelligence-gathering capability is never a good idea.

    Repurposing and shared-mission SIGINT satellites for scientific use is as old as space flight itself.

  • Uh oh... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Mephistro ( 1248898 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:56PM (#34310970)
    This thing has the right size and lift capability for deploying "rods from God". Scary, isn't it?
  • by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @07:00PM (#34311682) Homepage

    Almost mass-produced, medium-sized, modular launchers are probably the better way (this Delta does show some of those aspects - and, say, Angara will be very nicely scalable, from 1 to 7 identical core modules) than some huge, rarely launched rocket & the infrastructure required by it.

    Especially since we're quite good, for a long time now, at autonomous docking and on-orbit assembly.

  • by Dr La ( 1342733 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @07:19PM (#34311870) Homepage
    Actually, all Mentor's previous to this one were and are positioned at longitudes covering West Asia and Africa. They do not cover US territory so far. We have reasons to believe this new one will not either.
  • by CG_Man ( 993435 ) * on Monday November 22, 2010 @08:02PM (#34312214)
    Last really big spy satellite I took notice of was one carried on board a Titan IV in 1998 that didn't get very far before before exploding and/or being destroyed by range safety personnel [globalsecurity.org]. We usually enjoyed rocket launches (and plenty of mixed drinks) from a friend's condo on the south side of the harbor entrance channel that had a great view of the various launch pads (or at least the rockets after they got a few feet up in the air). For this one, I was on board my ship in port. Someone made a pipe (announcement) that a rocket was going up. Good time for a break. Went up to the foc'sle with my coffee and watched as $1.3 billion of our U.S. tax dollars got blown into tiny little bits. Ughhh. Wondered briefly if pieces were going to land on the ship -- not too likely. Went back below to my stateroom and back to work. Glad this one got further along.
  • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @09:20PM (#34312874)

    Well, we could have had the Ares V, which would have lifted 200 tons to LEO, but Obama canceled it. Of course, since Obama is the anointed one, we all have to pretend this is a good thing and spout rhetoric like, "Ares was expensive"

    The Ares V was a bait-and-switch. You spend the big bucks for the Ares V and you get... the Ares I. There were numerous deep problems with the program, but this was one of the biggest. You didn't actually get development towards an Ares V until many years into development.

    Second, the Ares I is a redundant rocket (which duplicates the Delta IV Heavy and near future Atlas V Heavy). This was the reason I opposed the Ares program almost from the day it was announced. NASA has a terrible record [transterrestrial.com] (mainly from the 70s through 90s) of killing competition when it's allowed to interfere or compete with commercial companies. It would be extremely unhealthy to allow NASA to compete with the 20-25 ton launch vehicles that we currently have. IMHO, the first competitive victim was the separate Delta and Atlas launch groups which were merged into the United Launch Alliance (ULA) at the end of 2006. If NASA had announced it were aggressively using the Delta IV and Atlas V for manned missions, then it is my belief that this merger wouldn't have occurred. As a final remark on this point, supposed through the beginning of 2010, NASA spent $9 billion on the Constellation program. That money would have been enough to pay for roughly 20 Delta IV Heavy launches. Of course, NASA would have needed to spend money on a crew vehicle and "man-rating" the Delta IV Heavy (my understanding is that they'd be about a billion dollars each to do), but they could have been a hell of a lot further along in a real space program, if they had chosen the Delta IV Heavy as the manned vehicle. The Atlas V Heavy was that far off either. They probably could have had two manned vehicles in the Ares I range by now for the money spent on Constellation development.

    Third, the choice of the ATK (a brand of Alliant Techsystems) solid rocket motor (SRM) for the first stage led to numerous very serious engineering problems. First, there was the problem of thrust oscillation. The rocket had an oscillation mode close to the frequency of eddies in the rocket chamber in the SRM. The Shuttle also had to worry about this mode, but it had a clever mechanism (the way the solid rocket boosters were attached to the rest of the Shuttle "stack") that damped those vibrations. The Ares I couldn't use that mechanism because the SRM was in line with the rest of the rocket rather than attached tenuously on the side. The program was fixable, but only by adding mass to the rocket and cutting into the performance of the overall system.

    There was also the problem of no room to expand. The first stage was made as large as it possibly could. There was no way to make it longer or wider (the length was structurally as far as they could push it, the width was limited by how wide the booster could be and still squeeze through a particular train tunnel). These two issues, plus the inability to develop a cheap, disposable Space Shuttle main engine (SSME) meant that the rocket was over successive revisions experiencing a gradual decline in designed performance. This led to numerous redesigns of the Orion capsule. A big culprit of these redesigns was bad management. The Apollo program also had problems with people not meeting their specifications. They put it together seamlessly because the various managers and designers (particularly, Wernher von Braun and the Marshal Space Flight Center team) anticipated these problems and had the freedom to overengineer their systems. This chapter [nasa.gov] describes a key choice:

    Rosen apparently took the lead in pressing for the fifth engine, consistent with his obstinate push for a "big rocket." The MSFC contingent during the meetings included Wi

  • by IonOtter ( 629215 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @10:40PM (#34313334) Homepage

    Why not a weapon? [wikipedia.org]

  • by Richard_at_work ( 517087 ) <richardprice@gm a i l . com> on Tuesday November 23, 2010 @09:44AM (#34316758)
    You get what you pay for - at $43.5Billion in todays money for 13 launches, Saturn V was not cheap. The Delta 4 however has an average cost of $210Million with 14 launches, so is considerably cheaper.

Executive ability is deciding quickly and getting somebody else to do the work. -- John G. Pollard