Spy satellite goes into orbit after monthlong delay

Delta 4 Heavy liftoff
United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 Heavy rocket lifts off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, sending the NROL-71 classified payload into space. (ULA Photo)

The National Reconnaissance Office’s latest classified spy satellite, NROL-71, was launched today by a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket into California’s sunny skies.

Today’s trouble-free countdown at Vandenberg Air Force Base came in contrast to the string of technical glitches that held up liftoff by more than a month.

The original launch date had been set for Dec. 7, but the technical issues — including concerns about a hydrogen leak on one of the engine sections — forced repeated delays. One memorable delay came just as a fireball was sighted over the region, sparking a momentary mystery.

Plenty of mystery still surrounds the NROL-71 mission: Outside experts suspect that the payload could be the first of what’s known as the Block 5 KH-11 spy satellites — next-generation cousins of the Hubble Space Telescope that are tasked with watching Earth rather than the heavens.

Neither United Launch Alliance nor the NRO is saying anything on that score.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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