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Thu, Mar 13, 2008

NRO Satellite Launches From Vandenburg

Hopefully, They Won't Have To Shoot This One Down

An Atlas 5 rocket carrying a classified National Reconnaissance Office satellite lifted off successfully in the wee hours of Thursday morning.

The Associated Press reports the booster launched from California's Vandenburg AFB at 0302 PDT. United Launch Alliance spokesman Mike Rein said only "it went great," but added he couldn't say whether the satellite reached orbit "because of the nature of the launch."

No details of the mission were available.

In the worst-case scenario, at least, the launch may provide Defense Department planners with another opportunity to test their missile defense system. As ANN reported, on February 21 a missile fired from a Navy warship struck a malfunctioning NRO satellite that apparently went dark shortly after its December 2006 launch.

Officials told the public they were concerned parts of the bus-sized satellite would possibly fall on inhabited areas if allowed to reenter Earth's atmosphere on its own... including a nearly-full tank of hydrazine, a highly toxic propellant used in the satellite's maneuvering thrusters. Military leaders also expressed misgivings about the possibility the technology onboard the reconnaissance satellite -- in particular, a top-secret imaging camera -- could have fallen into hostile hands.

US authorities took steps to placate leaders in China and Russia ahead of, and immediately after, the launch... stating the shootdown was primarily a humanitarian gesture, and not an overt military action. Days after the successful operation, however, Defense Secretary Robert Gates pointedly noted the firing was a missile defense test.

Thursday's launch was the first firing of an Atlas V booster from the West Coast. All previous Atlas V launches by ULA have occurred in Florida.

FMI: www.nro.gov

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