01:52 PM

Air Force Launches Enormous Spy Satellite

A Delta IV Heavy rocket lifted off Sunday on a top-secret defense mission, according to the National Reconnaissance Office.

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The Air Force over the weekend launched what is believed to be the largest-ever spy satellite on a top-secret mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

A Delta IV Heavy rocket took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sunday in a national defense mission, according to the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that constructed the satellite.

While the NRO, which is leading the satellite's mission, said little about what it will be doing in space other than commenting on the satellite's size, published reports said it is likely to be eavesdropping for the National Security Agency (NSA).

More specifically, the payload, which includes an array of radio receivers and a massive antenna, is believed to be aimed at intercepting communications for the NSA, reports said.

It was the fourth Delta IV Heavy launch for the ULA; there have been 351 rockets launched so far in the Delta program. The alliance has launched 45 missions in the 48 months since its inception on Dec. 1, 2006.

The mission is ULA's last for this year; the next launch is scheduled for Jan. 11, 2011 from Vandenberg Air Force Station in California.

The satellite launched Sunday features a center common booster core with two strap-on common booster cores, each one powered by the RS-68 cryogenic engine, according to ULA. The second stage of the launch was powered by an RL10B-2 Rocketdyne. ULA built the Delta Heavy launch vehicle in Decatur, Ala., one of its several locations.

ULA program management, engineering, test, and mission support functions are based in Denver. In addition to its location in Decatur, manufacturing, assembly, and integration also happens in Harlingen, Texas, and San Diego. ULA rockets typically launch from either Cape Canaveral or Vandenburg.

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