NRO payload guesses

From: Ted Molczan (
Date: Tue Apr 17 2012 - 01:03:37 UTC

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    Below are my current payload guesses for upcoming NRO launches. Please be warned that my track record guessing payloads
    is not all that good.
    Launch Date  Launch   Site     Vehicle        Payload Guess                 Confidence
    20 Jun 2012  NROL-38  CCAFS  Atlas V-401      SDS GEO or HEO                    90%
    28 Jun 2012  NROL-15  CCAFS  Delta IV-H       Misty 1-3                         70
    02 Aug 2012  NROL-36  VAFB   Atlas V-401      NOSS 3-6                         100
        CY 2013  NROL-65  VAFB   Delta IV-H       Final Block 4 KH-11              100
        FY 2014  AFSPC-4  CCAFS  Delta IV-M(4,2)  Trumpet-FO 3 + SBIRS-HEO 3        80
        FY 2014  NROL-39  VAFB   Atlas V-501      FIA Radar 3                      100
        FY 2014  NROL-67  CCAFS  Atlas V-541      Next Generation GEO SIGINT        90
        FY 2014  NROL-33  CCAFS  Atlas V-401      SDS HEO or GEO, or NOSS           95
    I offer the following comments on the three launches I find most interesting: NROL-15, AFSPC-4 and NROL-67. Corrections
    and suggestions are welcome.
    This payload probably is the one that until 1998 had been the final planned Titan IVB-NUS (no upper stage) launch, then
    scheduled for FY2004. It was shifted to EELV, and its Titan IVB was not completed. I am not completely certain that it
    was an NUS, but to my knowledge only 16 Titan-Centaur's were ordered, and all were launched. If so, then the payload in
    question must have been intended for LEO. I cannot prove that NROL-15 was that payload, but its place in the numbering
    sequence is consistent with launch originally scheduled for the early 2000's, and it is the only NRO payload from that
    period that remains to be launched.
    Assuming that this payload was of a type that had already flown, then there are not many possibilities. It could not
    have been a KeyHole, because by 1998 there was no plan to launch heavy-lift EELVs from VAFB, since the planned successor
    program (FIA) was to rely solely on medium EELVs. That leaves Lacrosse and Misty. There does not seem to be any evidence
    that a 6th Lacrosse was planned, but I cannot rule out the possibility that one was cancelled. In any case, NROL-15
    remains to be explained, and it has a significant commonality with Misty: an unusual need for performance. Although the
    secrecy surrounding such programs introduces a great degree of uncertainty, I believe that the scenario presented below
    fits the known facts considerably better than any other that has come to light.
    Misty is believed to have been derived from the Block 3 KH-11, which it outweighed by about 25 percent. Both were
    designed for exclusive launch by the space shuttle, with deployment by the unique motorized hinge-like SPDS (Stabilized
    Payload Deployment System). Soon after the loss of Challenger in 1986, the decision was made to shift all USAF and NRO
    payloads to the Titan IV, except for the few that were about ready to fly at the time. The Titan IV had already been
    under development for several years, with 10 vehicles including Centaur stages on order. The original Titan IV did not
    have sufficient performance to orbit Misty; therefore, in 1987 the SRMU (solid rocket motor upgrade) program was
    initiated, which would increase performance by 25 percent and improve reliability as well. The new version was called
    Titan IVB. It was delayed several years due to problems with the SRMU, and finally debuted in Feb 1997. 
    The switch to the Titan IV also required development of the Titan Payload Adaptor (TPA), which enabled deployment of
    Block 3 KH-11 and Misty from the top of the Titan IV 2nd stage, despite their having been designed for the shuttle's
    SPDS. It first flew in Nov 1992, on the launch of the first Block 3 KH-11.
    In Feb 1990, Atlantis mission STS 36 carried Misty 1-1 (1990-019B / 20516) into a low altitude 62 deg orbit (the highest
    inclination of the shuttle program). Weeks before the launch, Aviation Week and Space Technology reported that the
    payload weighed 37,300 lbs. Misty 1-2 (1999-028A / 25744) was launched in May 1999 from VAFB on a Titan 404B, into a low
    altitude 63.4 deg orbit. It was the 5th launch of a Titan IVB; the fourth of a TPA.
    The Delta IV-H far exceeds the performance of the Titan IVB, yet by 2005 it was found to be slightly short of the
    performance requirement of a single NRO launch, which prompted the decision in 2006 to spend an estimated $200 million
    to upgrade the RS-68 main engine to the RS-68A. It has been evident since late 2007 that NROL-15 is the mission that
    requires the RS-68A. Assuming NROL-15 is Misty 1-3, then the original Delta IV-H should have been more than adequate to
    launch it; therefore, the need for the main engine upgrade suggests a highly unusual launch profile.
    DSN Canberra reportedly will support NROL-15, which rules out a Molniya type launch trajectory, but is consistent with a
    GEO mission. It would be useless to send a Misty to GEO, but creating the impression of a routine GEO launch would be
    very much in keeping with the deception practiced in the early stages of the first two Misty missions, which appeared to
    target Molniya orbits.
    Misty 1-1 had initially been visually brilliant and was readily detectable by radar, but vanished one week after launch,
    leaving behind a handful of pieces of debris, which gave the impression that it had either exploded or gone to a Molniya
    orbit and left behind a bit of incidental debris. It actually raised its orbit to 800 km, and increased its inclination
    by 3 deg, before activating its optical stealth system. It probably was passively radar-stealthy, so the debris that it
    left behind in its original orbit may have been a temporary radar-reflective second skin, to give adversaries the
    opportunity to see it, before performing its vanishing act.
    Misty 1's cover was blown in the fall of 1990, when hobbyists easily spotted it in orbit over Europe. Apparently, its
    optical stealth mechanism was activated only within range of known detection threats over the then USSR. This arguably
    created the need to modify the ruse to be employed by Misty 1-2, which apparently was accomplished by adding a decoy,
    which manoeuvred independently to a much higher orbit than that of Misty. Hobbyist observers tracked the intrinsically
    bright decoy for three years, in the belief it was the primary payload. They discovered the likely truth after they
    recognized its stronger than expected susceptibility to solar radiation pressure (SRP) perturbations, which revealed it
    to be no more massive than a few hundred kilograms.
    The exposure of Misty 1-2's decoy in Aug 2002 may have provided some of the motivation to enhance the ruse to be
    performed by Misty 1-3. Also, by this time, the second generation Misty was early in its development and encountering
    significant opposition in Congress, due to its rapidly escalating projected cost and doubts about its usefulness. This
    might have created exceptional pressure on the NRO to use the final first generation Misty to demonstrate the continued
    relevance of this cold-war heritage program, as well as the ability to maintain its cover once in orbit. 
    Having NROL-15 masquerade as a GEO SIGINT launch by heading due east from CCAFS into a low 28.5 deg parking orbit,
    followed by the rapid separation of Misty 1-3, which would then manoeuvre to a quasi-40 deg orbit, might have been seen
    as the ideal solution to both problems. The new orbit arguably would be optimal for coverage of the Middle East, which
    by then had become the focal point for surveillance, and the launch trajectory would not resemble those of its
    Whatever the launch profile, to be convincing, the 2nd stage must not linger in LEO. Ideally, it would insert itself and
    a decoy resembling a SIGINT payload into a plausible GEO orbit. The decoy would need to be sufficiently bright to appear
    to have justified the use of a Delta IV-Heavy (especially one that required more powerful engines!), like the huge
    Mentor SIGINTs that shine at magnitude 8 - several magnitudes brighter than other contemporary GEO spacecraft. Unlike
    the passive decoy of Misty 1-2, it would need to manoeuvre to maintain east-west station-keeping.
    Whether Delta IV-Heavy would be capable of supporting such a mission, with or without the engine upgrade, is unknown.
    There are less demanding options that do not involve the use of a decoy, but the ruse probably would be far less
    The alternative requiring the least performance would be to de-orbit the 2nd stage into an ocean before an adversary
    could detect it by radar or optically, but that would require not issuing a NOTAM, a rule that I doubt the U.S. would
    The NOTAM issue could be avoided by disposing of the 2nd stage into a solar orbit. Interestingly, in Oct 2009, the
    Centaur used to launch DMSP F18 was disposed of in that manner, and in Apr 2010, the Centaur that launched the first
    X-37B was quietly sent into solar orbit, minutes after payload separation. These were arguably the earliest LEO EELV
    opportunities to practice the manoeuvre after the decision to retarget Misty 1-3 and upgrade the RS-68 in 2006.
    Another alternative would be to send the 2nd stage to GTO, creating the impression of a failed GEO launch. There are NRO
    and USAF precedents. Vortex 5 was stranded in GTO in 1988, as was DSP F19 in 1999. But analysis of drag perturbations
    could reveal that there was no payload attached, which would raise suspicions. And Boeing and ULA would be less than
    thrilled for their rocket to be made a suspect of an apparent major failure.
    Any of the above scenarios might explain the need to upgrade the performance of the Delta IV-H. Whether any of them
    would be feasible, with or without the main engine upgrade, remains to be proven. Careful analysis of the ability to
    perform each one, with and without the RS-68A, might help reveal which one, if any, is intended. I have done a bit of
    preliminary analysis, and would like to pursue it to a conclusion, but it's a problem best tackled by someone with the
    proper training and analytical tools; I am open to collaboration.
    I believe that this launch eventually will be correlated with an NRO number, and that its payload probably is the third
    Trumpet-FO/SBIRS-HEO. As of Feb 2011, HEO 3 was scheduled for delivery in Aug 2012, and according to an Apr 2011 AV Week
    report, could be launched in Oct 2014. By Feb 2012, scheduled delivery had slipped to Feb 2013, and there was a large
    spike in the budget for HEO 3&4 launch operations and checkout in FY2014, compared with prior and subsequent years. This
    correlates reasonably well with AFSPC-4, which is believed to be scheduled for 2014 or 2015.
    The Delta IV-M(4,2) was used for the first Trumpet-FO/SBIRS-HEO launch in 2006, but that was from VAFB. Performance to
    the same Molniya orbit from CCAFS would be reduced; however, it appears to be sufficient. If the planned fleet-wide
    integration of the RS-68A will have been completed in time for this launch, then that would reduce some of the
    performance loss, compared with the RS-68 version, and increase confidence in this hypothesis.
    I believe that this launch is the same one that was known for a time as AFSPC-2, which according to an unofficial
    manifest on, was to employ the Atlas V-541. The USAF budgeted about $27.5 million to qualify the
    Atlas V extended mission kit (EMK) (aka GSO kit), which was to have first flown on AFSPC-2. The EMK enables the Centaur
    stage to operate 6 h instead of the standard 2 h, required for 3-burn direct insertion GEO missions. There are two
    common GEO launch profiles. In the first and most common, the launch vehicle's mission ends with insertion of the
    payload near the perigee of a geosynchronous transfer orbit, and the payload completes the remaining manoeuvres to
    reduce the inclination and circularize the orbit at GEO altitude, using a PKM, thrusters, or some combination. In the
    other profile, the upper stage performs all of the major manoeuvres to reach the final GEO orbit, leaving only minor
    adjustments for the payload.
    With the exception of Rhyolite in the 1970s, NRO SIGINT satellites launched to Molniya or GEO, have relied on the upper
    stage to perform all of the manoeuvres to reach their final orbit. The only non-SIGINT NRO satellite to use this mode,
    was the SDS 1, during the 1970s and 80s.
    The AFSPC-2 label later was assigned to AEHF-3, which employs the Atlas V-531 and does not require an EMK. About the
    same time, NROL-67 appeared on public manifests, employing an Atlas V-541, which I strongly suspect is the former
    AFSPC-2 vehicle and its EMK, which is strong evidence that it is the next generation GEO SIGINT. 
    The new GEO SIGINT may share the same bus as the Trumpet-FO (Follow On) SIGINT, launched to Molniya from VAFB in 2006
    and 2008: 2006-027A / 29249 on Delta IV-M (4,2), and 2008-010A / 32706 on Atlas V-411. Trumpet-FO host the SBIRS-HEO
    sensors. I have roughly estimated their combined mass between 3,900 and 4,500 kg.
    U.S. GEO SIGINTs typically operate in orbits initially inclined between 5 and 7 deg. Based on the mission planner's
    guide, the Atlas V 541 can directly insert about 3,850 kg into a 6 deg GEO orbit; the next smaller vehicle, 531, can
    insert about 3,400 kg, so the payload range would be 3,400 kg to 3,850 kg, which seems about right for a SIGINT of the
    Trumpet Follow-On without the SBIRS sensor.
    Fairing sizes disagree: Trumpet-FO employs 4 m fairings, NROL-67's is 5 m; however, the 3-burn insertion to GEO option
    is only available for the Atlas V-521, 531, 541 and 551, so the payload's dimensions may not have determined the fairing
    It remains to be seen whether this new GEO SIGINT will replace the Mentor spacecraft. NROL-26 launched Mentor 4
    (2009-001A / 33490) in Jan 2009, and NROL-32 launched Mentor 5 (2010-1063 / 37232) in Nov 2010. As of 2005, the last
    known Delta IV-H mission was NROL-37, then slated for 2015. Its present status is not known. Whether it is a Mentor, or
    perhaps the next generation Misty, that was reportedly cancelled in 2007, is unknown, but may become clear over time.
    Ted Molczan
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