United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V will conduct a clandestine launch in support of the US National Reconnaissance Office Thursday, its second mission in a fortnight in support of the agency that maintains America’s fleet of spy satellites. Liftoff of NROL-52 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is scheduled for a fifty-three-minute window opening at 04:07 Eastern time (08:07 UTC).
Thursday’s launch will carry out the NROL-52 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), deploying an unspecified payload into Earth orbit. The sixth flight of Atlas this year, Thursday’s launch follows the successful deployment of the NROL-42 mission – whose payload is now designated USA-278 – from Vandenberg Air Force Base in late September.
The NRO rarely releases any details of its spacecraft, and NROL-52 – or NRO Launch 52 – is no exception.
Officially, NROL-52 is a classified mission being conducted in the interests of national security. Despite this secrecy, experts and amateur observers are often able to identify different classes of spacecraft, track the satellites in orbit and make deductions about their missions and some of their capabilities.
These deductions have been aided by occasional leaks from within the US intelligence community – such as documents ...