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U.S. spy satellite heads into orbit after spectacular launch

A classified National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite was lofted into orbit Friday by a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket, in the third of four NRO missions planned for 2012.

A powerful Delta 4 rocket blasts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a classified National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite.
Pat Corkery/United Launch Alliance

A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket, the most powerful in the postshuttle U.S. inventory, boosted a top-secret National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite into space early Friday, after a spectacular morning launch from Cape Canaveral.

Running three hours late because of technical snags, the 232-foot-tall rocket, made up of three liquid-fueled common core boosters and a powerful upper stage, roared to life at 9:15 a.m. EDT (GMT-4) and quickly climbed away from launch complex 37 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Generating nearly two-and-a-half million pounds of thrust from three upgraded Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne RS-68A first stage engines, the rocket quickly accelerated as it consumed its liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel, arcing away to the East atop a fiery plume of exhaust visible for miles around.

The two outside common core boosters separated and fell away as planned four minutes after liftoff, and the central core's single RS-68A engine continued to burn for another minute and 40 seconds or so before shutting down and dropping away.

The rocket's second stage, powered by a single Pratt and Whitney hydrogen-fueled RL10B-2 engine, ignited a few seconds later, and a minute after that, the protective payload fairing separated and fell away, exposing the secret NROL-15 satellite payload to space.

At that point, in keeping with standard NRO policy, United Launch Alliance commentary ended and no other details about the flight were provided. But six hours later, the company released a statement calling the flight a success, indicating the satellite reached its intended preliminary orbit.

"Today's successful launch of the NROL-15 mission is the third of four launches for the NRO this year and the second EELV launch for the NRO in just nine days," Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president for mission operations, said in the statement. "We congratulate the combined NRO, U.S. Air Force, and ULA team along with our mission partners for their continued focus on mission success as we deliver the critical capabilities to support the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines."

This was the 20th Delta 4 launch since 2002 and the sixth flight of the most powerful three-core version.