Five and Counting!
Tomorrow in the early morning is the next Delta IV Heavy launch for United Launch Alliance. Actually, it is the first of five remaining Delta IV Heavy launches. This rocket is being retired in favor of the more powerful Vulcan rocket, which will also replace the Atlas V, ULA’s other workhorse launch vehicle. This Delta IV Heavy is bound to launch a classified payload into geosynchronous orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office.
With the exception of a small handful of past missions, nothing is known about NRO’s payloads. That’s understandable because… Well… I really can’t tell you. I just have no clue about those payloads other than the fact that they’re on deck ready to be launched in the coming days.
As for the Delta IV Heavy, it alongside the retired Delta IV Medium rockets have had a good success rate with the exception of one partial failure less than 16 years ago. This will be the 41st Delta IV rocket to be launched and the 12th Delta IV Heavy since its maiden flight in December 2004. It hasn’t been flying much because the Delta IV rocket family is more expensive than Atlas V. The construction of all the boosters and upper stages is tougher than one may look at it; most everything is done by hand. In addition, despite the engines and electronics being made in America, those components cost more money.
However, these classified NRO payloads such as the one launching tomorrow morning can’t be flown atop Atlas V because they are too heavy and that rocket doesn’t have enough power to place them into their proper orbits. Only Delta IV Heavy has that capability, especially since it’s going to an orbit that makes one revolution around the Earth every 24 hours. That’s what the term “geosynchronous orbit” means.
While I’m gonna be asleep at the time of launch, I wish ULA the best of luck with their fifth-to-last Delta IV Heavy mission for the National Reconnaissance Office. Next time around, there will be FOUR and counting!