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.