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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.

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Last Delta 2 rocket launch puts ICESat-2 in orbit

Delta 2 launch
A United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket rises from its launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, carrying NASA’s ICESAT-2 satellite into orbit. (NASA via YouTube)

NASA kicked off its ICESat-2 mission to monitor our planet’s ice sheets from space using a laser-scanning satellite this morning, with a launch that marked the end of a nearly 30-year run for United Launch Alliance’s Delta 2 rocket.

Liftoff came at 6:02 a.m. PT from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, after a slight delay in the countdown due to concerns about the chilldown of the rocket’s helium bottles. The two-stage rocket made a trouble-free ascent to orbit.

ICESat-2 follows up on an earlier NASA mission that used laser-ranging data to measure ice sheet balance and sea level. This time around, the laser-scanning instrument will be capable of measuring Earth’s elevation every 30 inches (70 centimeters) across a 30-foot-wide track as it circles the planet.

The data will help scientists determine how climate change is affecting global ice levels, and how changes in the ice affect the height of Earth’s oceans.

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