United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy rocket will launch the mysterious NROL-71 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office Friday, during a launch window that opens at 20:19 Pacific Time (04:19 UTC on Saturday). The launch will take place from Space Launch Complex 6 at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Like most activities conducted by the United States National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), specifics of the NRO Launch 71 (NROL-71) mission are classified. The NRO is the organization that operates America’s fleet of reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering satellites, using a variety of spacecraft types and surveillance techniques to support national defense and security.
Despite the classified nature of their operations, a combination of information published by the NRO itself and other government sources, leaks and observation of the satellites’ orbits and behavior has allowed different groups of satellites to be characterized and their purpose determined. Analysis of hazard areas published for maritime and aviation safety in advance of every launch, combined with a comparison of the type of rocket to be used to those that have orbited previous satellites, allows most NRO satellites to be identified before they even leave the ground – although occasionally a mission will throw a curveball.
NROL-71 has ...