January 20, 2011 – Vandenberg Air Force Base – NROL 49
Atec’s 2011 launch schedule began with the maiden voyage of a Delta 4-Heavy rocket from California, the largest booster ever flown from the West Coast. The RL-10 engine upper stage deployed a crucial and clandestine replacement satellite into a polar orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office’s sophisticated constellation. The Latin words “melior diabolus quem scies”are inscribed on the mission patch. This roughly translates to mean “the devil you know,” as in the phrase “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” Launch the article.
March 5, 2011 – Cape Canaveral – USA 226 (X-37B)
The first Atlas 5 launch of 2011 inserted the Pentagon’s second experimental X-37B, America’s miniature military space shuttle, into Earth’s orbit to begin a secretive long-endurance mission. On November 29, 2011, a spokesperson for the Secretary of the Air Force announced the mission was extended beyond its original life expectancy, citing ongoing experimentation. See launch photos.
March 11, 2011 – Cape Canaveral – NROL 27
Fast on the heels of the Atlas launch, a medium-class Delta 4 lifted off from the cape with another NRO spacecraft headed for a geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above the earth. This satellite will serve to relay data from low-altitude spacecraft such as imaging spy satellites. Read more about themission and see photos.
April 14, 2011 – Vandenberg Air Force Base – NROL 34
Capping off six launches in seven months for the NRO, an Atlas 5 launched from the West Coast carrying a pair of formation-flying ocean surveillance spacecraft.
Details surrounding the purpose and final orbit of the satellite are classified, but the new spacecraft will definitely serve a role for the U.S. military. Read the full story and see photos.
May 7, 2011 – Cape Canaveral – SBIRS GEO-1
Atlas 5 continued to perform flawlessly in 2011, launching the long-awaited next generation in early-warning missile detection satellites. SBIRS GEO-1 is the first of four spacecraft slated to replace the Defense Support Program satellites and is primarily intended to provide enhanced strategic missile and theater ballistic missile warning capabilities. See additional photos.
July 16, 2011 – Cape Canaveral – GPS 2F2
Launching from Florida, a Delta 4 lofted the second of a 12-ship advanced constellation of GPS satellites. The first of the GPS IIF series was launched May 27, 2010. Each of the 12 are expected to have a 12-year life span. The GPS IIF series continues the tradition of combined civil and military global positioning system satellite coverage. This was the 50th successful launch of a GPS craft by the Delta family dating to 1989. Watch the launch.
August 5, 2011 – Cape Canaveral – Juno
Atlas 5 launched a NASA probe destined for Jupiter, 1.8 billion miles away from Earth. After launch, the rocket’s Centaur upper stage, powered by an RL-10 engine, carried out a first six-minute burn to boost the spacecraft into a temporary orbit. A second, nine-minute RL-10 firing 31 minutes later accelerated Juno to 25,000 mph, the interplanetary escape velocity. Three minutes later, the 4-ton spacecraft separated from the Centaur to fly on its own. Read NASA’s updates on the mission.
November 26, 2011 – Cape Canaveral – Curiosity
Ending Atec’s launch year, an Atlas 5 propelled a probe form Earth that carries the most advanced roving vehicle ever sent to the surface of another planet. Destined for the Gale Crater on Mars, and carried by the Mars Science Laboratory, the car sized Curiosity will continue the work of previous Mars rovers in the search for life on our neighboring planet. Interestingly, the RL-10- engined upper stage performed so flawlessly on this launch that Louis D’Amario of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena said, “This was among the most accurate interplanetary injections ever.” Read more about the precise launch, the postponement of the planned course adjustment , andNASA’s updates on the mission.
”Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”
— Stephen Hawking, interview in the Winnipeg Free Press, 19 November 2011.