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Atlas V Rocket Launches Top-Secret Satellite into Space

May 22, 2014 12:29 PM EDT
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Atlas V rocket launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, May 22, 2014
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) unmanned Atlas V rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station this Thursday morning, toting along with it an Air Force top-secret satellite.
(Photo : United Launch Alliance)

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) unmanned Atlas V rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station this Thursday morning, toting along with it an Air Force top-secret satellite.

Lifting off at 9:09 a.m. EDT, the NROL-33 mission launch was carried out for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which designs, builds and flies America's intelligence satellites, according to the Associated Press.

Details behind the satellite's mission remain classified for national security reasons, but according to SpaceFlight101, it is most likely a Quasar satellite that will become part of the Satellite Data System. These types of satellites are communication relay satellites for transmitting real-time data in polar areas, and are also used as a means of communication to US Air Force aircraft on polar routes.

Today's launch is on its way to an undisclosed orbit to deploy the clandestine payload, and though its destination and objective remain unknown, officials assure us that any launch serves an important purpose.

"We are committed to smart acquisition investments and practices to ensure the continued coverage and availability of our vital National Security systems and we work tirelessly to continue to deliver these systems on time and within budget," NRO Director Betty Sapp said in a SpaceFlightNow.com article.

This is the 46th flight for the Atlas 5 rocket produced by ULA, but the vehicle has come under fire recently, mainly from SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, who spent the better half of last month at odds with the Air Force and ULA over these kinds of spy launches.

The rocket is fueled by the Russian-built RD-180 main engine, a country which currently has sanctions imposed upon them by the United States due to the crisis in Ukraine. As a result, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said the country would no longer supply the United States with such equipment if they are to be used for national security-related launches.

In the event that Russia follows through on its promise, the Air Force is looking elsewhere for an alternative engine supplier. Musk believes SpaceX is up for the job seeing as how they produce their own rocket engines, and conducting such top-secret launches through them would save American taxpayers $1 billion.

You can view today's rocket launch on Space.com.

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