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Sat-spotters find secret payload launched by giant US rocket

Basically a Hubble telescope – but pointed down, not up

Amateur skywatchers say they have located the secret spacecraft launched aboard a giant US rocket on Friday. It is thought to be an optical spy satellite of a type which had been retired, but has now been brought back into service due to the failure of its replacement.

The spacecraft, initially referred to as NROL-49*, has now been spotted, and details of its orbit refined by amateur observers. According to veteran spysat-spotter Ted Molczan, the nature of this orbit is such as to make it now virtually certain that the spacecraft is a new, modernised KeyHole-11 optical surveillance satellite – a refinement of a type originally deployed in the 1970s.

According to Molczan, the new spy spacecraft is "of KH-11 lineage", meaning an updated version of the original electro-optical orbiting telescope – thought to be somewhat similar in size and configuration to the Hubble Space Telescope, but pointed down at the Earth rather than out into the universe.

Until the 1990s, the large KeyHole spy satellites, built by companies now grouped under the Lockheed Martin umbrella, more or less had a monopoly at the NRO. However the big, bus-sized machines required powerful launch rockets (or the Space Shuttle in some cases) to reach orbit, and this was expensive – as were the satellites themselves.

Behind the curtain of secrecy, the spooks and generals of the National Reconnaissance Office awarded a new, multibillion-dollar deal to Lockheed's great rival Boeing to build a new generation of smaller, lighter, cheaper spysats that could be launched more often on cheaper rockets. This Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) plan hit trouble even before 2000, but the NRO ploughed on with it.

Finally, by some accounts after some $15bn had been spent to little effect, the optical part at least of the FIA was said to have been cancelled in 2005. (Some analysts contend that the radar-sat part of it lived on, and that an early example was the failed-on-launch satellite which subsequently had to be destroyed above the Pacific by a US Navy cruiser using a missile-defence interceptor.)

The consensus among observers is that the lengthy wait for FIA, followed by its non-appearance, has led the NRO to ask Lockheed to supply further old-school KeyHoles, heavy and pricey as they are: and that Friday's launch of a massive Delta IV Heavy – the most powerful rocket stack in US service other than the Space Shuttle – carried the first of these into space to relieve the ageing KeyHoles now in orbit.

Spaceflight Now notes that the NROL-49 mission patch worn by members of the launch team carries the motto melior diabolus quem scies, meaning roughly "better the devil you know". ®


*National Reconnaissance Office Launch 49, the official designation for the Delta 4 Heavy launch operation on Friday. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is a joint operation of the US military and intelligence community and their contractors, in charge of secret spy satellites.