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ULA Atlas V launches from Space Coast on mission for NRO and Space Force

ULA’s Atlas V rocket successfully lifts off from the Space Coast on a mission serving the NRO and Space Force.

United Launch Alliance
Image Source: The Atlas V N22 rocket lifts off. Photo by United Launch Alliance

United Launch Alliance (ULA) is gearing up for a crucial national security mission, the penultimate one, utilizing its trusty Atlas 5 rocket. This mission, known as NROL-107 or Silentbarker, is scheduled for liftoff at 8:47 a.m. EDT (1247 UTC) from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41).

The launch was initially slated for Saturday but experienced a one-day delay due to a prelaunch ordnance circuit continuity check issue detected by ULA. However, as of the latest update at 4:05 a.m. EDT (0805 UTC), the countdown process was progressing smoothly, and all systems were ‘go.’

The launch weather forecast is highly favorable, with a 90 percent chance of on-time liftoff. The weather outlook indicates that a light southerly flow is keeping potential diurnal shower and storm activity over the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic.

Silentbarker is dubbed a “watchdog” in the geosynchronous Earth orbit, positioned around 24,000 to 40,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. This mission will enhance tracking capabilities for smaller objects in GEO, supporting communication satellite adjustments and monitoring activities to ensure the safety of high-value assets.

National Reconnaissance Office Director Dr. Christopher Scolese highlighted the importance of Silentbarker, emphasizing the need to detect unexpected or potentially threatening activities in GEO.

The program, developed over approximately five years, emerged from a collaboration between the National Reconnaissance Office and the U.S. Space Systems Command. Estimates of the program’s cost vary, with a FY2021 Air Force budget document suggesting about $1.19 billion through FY2025 and a U.S. Government Accountability Office report from April 2023 assessing costs at roughly $994 million.

The Silentbarker program will involve at least two mission launches, with the first, NROL-107, carrying multiple payloads. Specific details regarding the payloads remain undisclosed.

Sunday’s launch also holds significance as it marks the final time ULA deploys an Atlas 5 rocket for an NRO mission before transitioning to their Vulcan rocket. One more national security mission is planned aboard an Atlas 5, USSF-51, expected to launch in 2024 with a precise date to be determined.

ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno expressed the significance of this mission for the team, as it aligns with the rocket’s designed purpose. It’s a bittersweet farewell to the Atlas 5, symbolizing the end of an era in their mission portfolio.

As Sunday’s launch countdown progresses, there is a palpable sense of reflection at ULA headquarters. The Atlas 5, a stalwart in the world of space launches, has a storied history of carrying out crucial missions, including national security endeavors, scientific explorations, and even journeys to the International Space Station.

ULA’s President and CEO, Tory Bruno, acknowledged the profound role the Atlas 5 has played throughout its mission legacy. It has been the steadfast workhorse of the fleet, reliably delivering payloads to the cosmos for decades.

Now, as the team prepares for this final Atlas 5 launch for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), there is a blend of nostalgia and anticipation. The rocket has been a symbol of excellence, and its retirement marks a transition to the next generation of launch vehicles with the Vulcan rocket poised to take the reins.

But for now, the spotlight remains on Silentbarker and the vital role it will play in enhancing our ability to safeguard assets in geosynchronous orbit. As the countdown clock ticks away, the eyes of the aerospace community and beyond are fixed on Cape Canaveral, awaiting the grand finale of the Atlas 5’s remarkable journey.

In the launch control room, dedicated engineers, scientists, and technicians work in harmony, driven by their passion for space exploration. Each one knows that this mission, like those that came before, represents a vital step in humanity’s ongoing quest to understand and navigate the cosmos.

The Atlas 5 stands tall on SLC-41, a silent sentinel ready to roar to life and deliver Silentbarker on its mission to protect the celestial realm above. It serves as a testament to human ingenuity, teamwork, and the relentless pursuit of knowledge.

As the clock continues its relentless march towards launch, there’s a collective acknowledgment that this isn’t just another mission. It’s a moment to honor the past while looking forward to the future, where new rockets like Vulcan will carry the torch and continue pushing the boundaries of space exploration.

The final countdown has begun, and as the world watches, ULA stands ready to bid farewell to an old friend and welcome the dawn of a new era in space launch technology. The legacy of the Atlas 5 lives on, and the pages of history are about to turn once more, as we venture onward into the vast cosmos.

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