America’s biggest rocket launches top-secret spy satellite

from The United States’ largest rocket launched a spy satellite on a hush-hush mission Wednesday.

An unmanned Delta 4-Heavy rocket
lifted off the pad at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base at 2:03
p.m. ET (11:03 p.m. PT) Wednesday, carrying a classified payload into a
polar orbit for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.

launch is dedicated to the men and women who serve for our nation’s
freedom,” a commentator said a few minutes into the liftoff. [See more photos of the spy satellite launch]

unclear what intelligence the spacecraft, which is known as NROL-65,
will collect as it zips around our planet. Because of the clandestine
nature of the mission, it entered a planned media blackout about seven
minutes after liftoff.

“We are
truly honored to deliver this critical asset to orbit,” said Jim
Sponnick, United Launch Alliance vice president for the Atlas and Delta
programs. “The ULA Delta 4 Heavy is currently the world’s largest
rocket, providing the nation with reliable, proven heavy-lift capability
for our country’s national security payloads from both the east and
west coasts.”

The Delta 4 Heavy, built by ULA and first flown
in 2004, is the biggest and most powerful American rocket in operation
today. The 235-foot-tall (72-meter) launcher generates about 2 million
pounds of thrust at liftoff, according to ULA officials.

Wednesday’s launch managed to stay on schedule despite the
difficulties imposed by the automatic federal budget cuts known as
sequestration, which went into effect March 1. The liftoff marked the
364th flight of a Delta rocket overall, and the 24th for the Delta 4
family. Delta 4 rockets have now lifted eight payloads into space for
the NRO, which builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites.

Bigger rockets on the wayWhile
the Delta 4 Heavy is the current American heavyweight rocket champ,
several other vehicles on the horizon will be even more powerful. For
example, NASA is building a giant rocket called the Space Launch System to send astronauts toward asteroids, Mars and other destinations in deep space.

first incarnation of SLS will stand 321 feet (98 meters) tall and carry
up to 70 metric tons of payload. But NASA plans to develop a
384-foot-tall (117-meter-tall) “evolved” version that would be capable
of blasting 130 metric tons into space, making it the most powerful
rocket ever built.

The SLS is designed to launch a crew capsule
called Orion, which is also in development. The rocket and capsule are
slated to fly together for the first time during an unmanned test run in
2017, with the first crewed mission expected to come in 2021.

will be ready to fly before the SLS is up and running. Orion’s first
test flight is scheduled to take place in 2014, when NASA will use a
Delta 4 Heavy to send an uncrewed Orion out to a distance of 3,700 miles
(6,000 kilometers) from Earth — farther than any spacecraft built for
humans has traveled since the Apollo program ended in 1972.

The private spaceflight company SpaceX is also working on a big rocket, which it calls the Falcon Heavy.
That launcher, which is expected to fly for the first time in 2014,
will produce nearly 4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, SpaceX
officials say.

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