NEW YORK — An unmanned rocket blasted off from the California coast April 3 carrying the first of four classified satellites the U.S. military plans to launch this year.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta 4 rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 4:12 p.m. local time (7:12 p.m. EDT) on a mission to orbit the classified satellite, called NROL-25, for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The liftoff came after several delays due to bad weather and a technical glitch.

“Congratulations to the NRO and to all the mission partners involved in this critical national security launch,” said Jim Sponnick, vice president of mission operation for ULA, which oversaw the launch. “ULA is proud to have supported this mission and delivered critical capabilities to the men and women defending our freedom throughout the world.”

The successful launch is the first of four spy satellite missions to be launched for the NRO this year. In 2011, the NRO launched six reconnaissance spacecraft in seven months. In 2012, the agency aims to launch the four new craft in 2012 within the span of five months.

“Our ability to sustain such high tempo is due both to the diligent efforts of our program teams who successfully acquire and deliver these complex systems on time, and our strong partnerships with the Air Force launch community,” Betty Sapp, NRO principal deputy director, said March 8 during testimony before a House Armed Services subcommittee.

“These successful launches are a very important and visible reminder of the space reconnaissance mission the NRO started over 50 years ago, and continues with such great success today.”

Because of the secretive nature of the NROL-25 mission, ULA officials cut off a live webcast of the launch 3.5 minutes after liftoff. The flight did, however, mark a milestone for the Delta 4 rocket; it was the first to launch using a version of the booster called the Delta 4 Medium-plus 5,2 configuration, which uses a common Delta 4 core flanked by twin solid rocket boosters and topped with a 5-meter fairing to cover the satellite payload.

The next ULA launch is slated to blast off in early May, when an Atlas 5 rocket will loft the U.S. Air Force’s second Advanced Extremely High Frequency secure communications satellite from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

That launch will be followed by three more classified NRO launches between late June and early August. After that, ULA is scheduled to launch NASA’s Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission on August 30, an Air Force GPS 2F satellite in late September, the service’s third X-37 orbital test vehicle in October, and NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-K in December.



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