Last weekend (Saturday, Jan. 17th), one of the most powerful rockets on the planet thundered to life at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, carrying something into space. Although the world has a good idea as to what this something was, it was a reminder that even during these times of intense media scrutiny and the guise of government transparency that there is a lot going on in space that we may never know about. However, far from clandestine launches at the dead of night being a bad thing, they appear to whet the worlds appetite for finding out more about the top secret military payloads routinely being put into orbit…
In the opening sequence of the 1967 007 film You Only Live Twice, a US manned space capsule is hijacked by a mysterious organization, setting the scene for the smooth operating UK MI6 secret service agent James Bond (acted by Sean Connery) to investigate. I remember seeing that huge mystery craft swallowing the US spaceship, and even with the limited visual effects available 40 years ago, it was a threatening and lasting impression about what could be the future of space exploration. Of course, it is highly unlikely that such an advanced terrorist organization could operate like this unchecked, but it was an entertaining vision none-the-less. [Thank you Joel Raupe for letting me know I was mixing my 007 movies up; it was in fact the 1967 “You Only Live Twice” that features the in-space hijack of the orbiting US space capsule, and not the 1979 “Moonraker”. I’ve corrected the paragraph. They were both space adventures, but Sean Connery was a much better James Bond in the earlier film in my opinion…]
Movie glamour to one side, whenever I see a military launch, of which the public knows little about, I think back to the undercover adventures of the likes of 007, wondering what really could be going on in space. Having just watched a poor UFO documentary about aliens living on the Moon, NASA conspiracies and the ensuing battle that is currently going on between the worlds space-based military and said “aliens” (oh please), I realised that many people believe some rather extreme claims about our government’s secret activities in space. Alas, there is no human-alien conflict going on over our heads, but we may never fully understand the military use of space. However, I think many of the real government activities in Earth orbit may surprise even the most hard-line conspiracy theorists. Why invent nonsense when the real thing is so captivating anyway?
Coming back to the Delta IV Heavy launch last week, I couldn’t help but be excited about what was actually going on. What we did know, was that it was a classified launch for the US National Reconnaissance Office, so we could quickly draw the conclusion that the NROL-26 mission was the launch of some kind of spy satellite. Attempting to force a media blackout at Cape Canaveral is a nigh-on impossible task, so a few general details were given about the launch, and many reporters were privy to the progress of blast-off, but around T+8 minutes, the authorities commenced a media blackout, not wanting any further detail of the eventual rocket destination be revealed to the world. After all, national security is paramount.
In the week, military enthusiasts and online think tanks were able to uncover some more information about what NROL-26 was all about. We know that the Delta IV Heavy was taking this spy satellite to a geosynchronous orbit, some 22,300 miles above the Earth’s surface, but the precise location is classified and we can only guess (which is why the media blackout was necessary to mask the trajectory of the launch vehicle). We know that the satellite was delivered successfully, as the satellite was renamed “USA 202” when it came online. There is some idea as to what this satellite really is, as Space.com reports, “The spacecraft is to enhance the capability for the U.S. to listen in on communications in hostile governments like Iran and terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda.” Obvious really. Also, there is some conjecture about how big and how much this satellite costs. Some estimates put the total cost of the Delta IV Heavy rocket plus satellite at $2 billion (so the pressure was on the National Reconnaissance Office to ensure mission success). The spy satellite is thought to weigh in at 4-5 tonnes (hence the requirement for the heavy-lift capabilities of the Delta IV Heavy), thereby indicating that it may be an advancement of the large “MENTOR”-type spy satellites launched between 1995 to 2003.
For all the details about USA 202, check out “Top Secret: What Did That Delta IV Heavy Take into Space?” on the Universe Today.
After writing the Universe Today article, it quickly became clear that there was a vast amount of interest in these secret military launches, and a lot of the opinions expressed were not negative, in fact many were the complete opposite. We live in a world where the media apparently has an intimate view on everything going on in space, so when we hear about a secret rocket launch, our imaginations are roused. Suddenly we want to know more and we start digging for information, hence why clandestine rocket launches will always be of acute interest. We all love a good mystery. What is really going on in space?