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Secret military satellite heads into space

Running two days late, a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket blasts off on a classified military mission -- the second of four planned this year by the secretive National Reconnaissance Office.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carrying a classified National Reconnaissance Office satellite blasted off today, creating a dramatic sky show as it boosted its secret payload into orbit.

An Atlas 5 rocket carrying a secret military satellite blasts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, kicking off a classified mission for the National Reconnaissance Office. Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

Running two days late because of work to fix an environmental control system duct, the 188-foot-tall Atlas 5 roared to life at 8:28 a.m. EDT and climbed away from launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, trailing a brilliant plume of flame from its Russian-designed RD-180 first-stage engine.

Without any strap-on solid-fuel boosters, the initial climb out appeared relatively sedate compared with more powerful variants in the Atlas family, but the rocket quickly accelerated as it consumed propellant at 1,500 pounds per second, arcing away to the East into the glare of the morning sun.

United Launch Alliance commentary continued through ignition of the rocket's single Centaur second stage engine. There were no apparent problems during the first four-and-a-half minutes of flight but as usual with classified missions, commentary ended just after the nose cone fairing was jettisoned, well before the NROL-38 payload reached orbit.

In a post-launch statement, the NRO called the mission a success, indicating the payload made it to its planned preliminary orbit.

"This morning's flawless launch is the product of many months of hard work and collaboration of government and industry teams," Col. James Fisher, director of NRO's Office of Space Launch, said in the statement. "We hit it out of the park again as we continue to deliver superior vigilance from above for the nation."

It was the company's fifth launch so far this year, the 31st for a Lockheed Martin-designed Atlas 5 and the second of four missions planned in 2012 by the National Reconnaissance Office, which is responsible for the nation's fleet of spy satellites.

Updated at 7:45 a.m. PT with post-launch statement from the NRO.