Early on the morning of June 22, 2023, a powerful Delta 4-Heavy rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, carrying a classified payload for the US spy satellite agency, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
Despite being delayed by more than 90 minutes due to stormy weather conditions, plus a technical issue with a ground pneumatics system valve, the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) 235-foot-tall rocket took off at 5:18 a.m. EDT.
Around seven hours later, US military officials confirmed that the launch of the NROL-68 mission had succeeded, ending what had been the longest gap between launches in ULA’s history.
“The payload we’ve put into space today adds to the unique capability the NRO provides to keep us safe and out in front of the pacing challenges posed by our Nation’s competitors,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy, program executive officer for The Space Systems Command (SSC).
While details about the payload on board the Delta 4-Heavy have not been officially disclosed, it is believed to be an Advanced Orion or Mentor spy satellite, designed for the NRO.
This type of satellite typically flies in geosynchronous orbit, more than 22,000 above the Earth, moving at the same rotational speed as the planet, providing constant coverage over the same parts of the world 24 hours a day.
The NRO’s Advanced Orion satellites are among the largest ever sent into space, easily visible from Earth with small binoculars due to their brightness.
“The NROL-68 mission is the latest national security payload to deliver critical intelligence information from space that our warfighters and decision makers need,” the NRO said in a statement. “NRO continues to develop the largest, most capable overhead constellation in NRO history that provides the foundation for America’s advantage and strength in space.”
The Delta 4-Heavy is an engineering marvel in and of itself, capable of carrying huge payloads, propelled by three RS-68A engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne and generating a staggering 2.1 million pounds of thrust.
This launch marks the second-to-last flight of ULA’s Delta rocket, as it is being retired in favor of the new-generation Vulcan launch vehicle.
Over the years, the Delta IV Heavy lift will have placed over 20 National Security satellites into space operations. Its final flight for the Space Force is planned to take place in 2024.