This week we look at the launch of a classified National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite on Monday, and what it means as the United Launch Alliance kicks off its 2021 launch season.

An NRO Spy Satellite Sets Off on its Classified Mission

An earlier launch of the Delta IV Heavy by United Launch Alliance (Public Domain).

Welcome to this week’s edition of The Intelligence Brief. Items in our queue this week include 1) the launch of a classified National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite on Monday, 2) why the classified mission was the talk of several agencies on social media, and 3) how past setbacks are being overcome as United Launch Alliance kicks off its 2021 launch season.

Before we dive into things, a few stories we’re covering this week over at The Debrief include a look at the world’s most advanced space radar, SOCOM Central’s claim that their Twitter account had been “hacked”… or not, how artificial intelligence may be helping us unravel mysteries about the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a recent incident which involved a possible near-collision between the International Space Station and space junk that turned out to be a false alarm. Be sure to check out the complete listing of articles featured at the end of this newsletter… and with that, let’s take a look at the NRO’s recent classified mission that launched a spy satellite into space earlier this week.


A Classified Mission Lifts Off at Vandenberg

A classified spy satellite being operated by the National Reconnaissance Office was carried into orbit on Monday aboard a Delta 4 Heavy Rocket launched by the United Launch Alliance. The Rocket lifted off shortly after 1:45 PM Pacific Time from the famous Launch Complex-6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

It was a notable first launch of 2021 for United Launch Alliance (ULA), as the secretive nature of the satellite’s mission involves national security objectives which, like the spy satellite itself, remain undisclosed to the public.

The location of the launch, Space Launch Complex-6 (SLC-6) is the West Coast launch site for ULA’s Delta IV rocket. Initially built by the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s for use with the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, the launch site at Vandenberg features what ULA calls a “classic” design, featuring a Fixed Umbilical Tower along with a Mobile Service Tower. The array at Complex-6 allows for rocket assembly in an on-site Horizontal Integration Facility, after which it is transported to the actual launch pad, where the payload is connected with the rocket. A Mobile Assembly Shelter at the launch complex also protects the rocket against weather prior to launch. After serving as a launch location for a short time during the 1990s for Lockheed Martin’s Athena rocket, in 2000 SLC-6 began to undergo significant updates in advance of Delta IV launches.


Secrecy and Social Media

Monday’s launch was televised and made available online for viewers around the world for the first seven minutes of the launch, after which the webcast was ended at the request of the U.S. government due to the sensitive nature of the NRO’s classified mission.

Despite the classified nature of the mission, the launch’s success was announced on Twitter on Tuesday.

“Yesterday, we successfully launched #NROL82 for the @NatReconOfc and @SpaceForceDoD!” the Tweet read, which also directed viewers on social media over to the ULA’s Flickr page where images from the launch could be found.

United Launch Alliance

The United Launch Alliance’s official Twitter account hadn’t been the only place where the announcement was publicized on social media. Similar congratulatory Tweets appeared on the official Twitter account of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“Congratulations to @NatReconOfc @30thSpaceWing @USSF_SMC and @ulalaunch on the successful launch of #NROL82!” the DNI Office’s Tweet read.


Collision Avoidance and Near Misses

Despite a successful launch, the original plans for liftoff did see a minor setback. Shortly before takeoff, a collision avoidance warning was issued that determined it was unsafe to launch due to the presence of another space, which the Delta 4 Heavy might have been in danger of colliding with. A one minute delay was issued, resulting in liftoff being moved to 1:47 PM Pacific time for Monday’s launch.

The minor delay arrived just days after an incident involving a false alarm aboard the International Space Station, where astronauts had been warned of a possible imminent collision. Although it was later determined that there had never been an object in danger of colliding with the ISS, the cause of the false alarm is currently being investigated by U.S. Space Command.


Overcoming Mission Setbacks

The NROL-82 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office is the 143rd mission for United Launch Alliance, according to information at its website. It is the ULA’s “90th mission in support of U.S. national security and the 31st for the NRO,” a statement at the ULA websie reads, adding that the mission “will be the 386th Delta launch since 1960, the 13th Delta IV Heavy and the 9th Heavy for the NRO.”

Back in December, a similar United Launch Alliance mission placed a Delta 4 Heavy into orbit as part of NROL-44, a mission that was mired with setbacks that included a pair of aborts resulting from ground equipment issues at Cape Canaveral, Flordia, where the launch had been scheduled to occur. Testing at that time appeared to indicated that final four scheduled Delta 4 Heavy missions wouldn’t have similar issues, and Monday’s launch set the tone for such aspirations as the ULA continues its operations into 2021.

spy satellite
(Public Domain)

As far as what the nature of the NRO’s spy satellite mission may entail, that remains in question, although with plenty of buzz in recent days about unique information being obtained around the world by U.S. intelligence agencies via satellite, it’s not hard to imagine multiple uses for the latest generation of advanced satellite surveillance technologies.

That concludes this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. Don’t forget to subscribe and get email updates from us here, or read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website. And as always, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] the

Meanwhile, here are the top stories we’re covering right now…