NROL-101 Launched into Orbit

Updated: Dec 28, 2020


On November 13th, at 5:32 PM EST, United Launch Alliance (ULA) launched their Atlas V with the NROL-101 satellite creating a spectacular sight in the sky, as the rocket launch in Earth's shadow and got to peak at the sun's rays as it rose into orbit. This was launching the newest spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office, meaning it was heavily classified and not much more information is public other than that they are capable of collecting optical and radar imagery of the ground and send/intercept secured lines between multiple intelligence agencies. However, we do know quite a bit about this launch itself. For starters this marks the 141st launch for ULA, 86th launch of an Atlas V and the 4th launch in the 531 configuration (5-meter fairing, 3 Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB), single RL-10 engine centaur upper stage). However this was a first when it comes to launches, this launch marked the inaugural flight of the GEM-63 SRB built by Northrop Grumman. Traditionally, Atlas V's have used Aerojet Rocketdyne's AJ-60A SRB which have a total height of 17 m (56 ft) and thrust of 1,688.4 kN (379,600 lb). The new GEM-63 are a little taller at 20.1 m (66 ft) and are a little weaker at 1,663 kN (374,000 lb), however they are much easier to use and are much cheaper to produce. They act as a good precursor to ULA's next launch vehicle, Vulcan, which will use the GEM-63's bigger brother, the GEM-63XL, which packs 2,026 kN (455,400 lb).

Atlas V launched from SLC-40 in Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 5:32 PM, igniting it single RD-180 engine and its 3 GEM-63's producing 8,819 kN (1,981,400 lb) of force. At T+1:36 (min:sec) the SRB's burnt all their fuel and were jettisoned at T+1:54. The payload fairing was jettisoned at T+3:21. Following this, due to the classified nature of the launch, after this, the launch coverage was cut by ULA, however from viewing, it appeared that Booster engine Cutoff occurred at T+4:20 with separation following soon afterwards, with Centaur engine ignition occurring at T+4:25. The centaur engine cut off somewhere beyond the horizon so cannot be determined at what time it occurred.


This marks the 5th and final flight of Atlas V for 2020, with the next currently scheduled for January 2021, launching OFT-2.


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