ULA successfully launches classified NROL-61 payload

Atlas V, carrying the classified NROL-61 payload, lifts off on its way to an undisclosed orbit. Photo credit: ULA

Atlas V, carrying the classified NROL-61 payload, lifts off on its way to an undisclosed orbit. Photo credit: ULA

At 8:37 a.m., precisely on-time, United Launch Alliance (ULA) launched the NROL-61 payload atop its reliable Atlas V rocket. Lifting off from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the vehicle quickly cleared the tower on its way to delivering the secretive National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO) satellite to an undisclosed orbit. Today’s launch marks the sixth of the year for ULA, and is the third NRO mission of 2016.

Prior to launch, weather conditions had improved to 100% favorable, thus effectively eliminating weather as a concern for a launch delay.

In a press release issued by United Launch Alliance, Laura Maginnis – ULA vice president of Custom Services – was quoted: “Thank you to the entire mission team for years of hard work and collaboration on today’s successful launch of NROL-61. We are proud the U.S. Air Force and NRO Office of Space Launch have entrusted ULA with delivering this critical asset for our nation’s security.”

NROL-61 mission patch. Image credit: NRO

NROL-61 mission patch. Image credit: NRO

The NROL-61 mission marked the 109th successful launch for ULA since the company’s founding in December 2006. ULA’s next launch is the Air Force’s AFSPC-6 satellite on a Delta IV, scheduled for August 19 from SLC-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Of interest for this particular mission is the buzz surrounding the mission’s “mascot”. Prior to the launch, photos showing artwork for this mission appeared to show a green gecko sitting atop the world as an Atlas V roared past. Additionally, the mission patch – which is painted on the payload fairing – showed the gecko riding atop the rocket on its way to space. The mascot was named ‘Spike’ and seemed to take on a story all his own, with tweets indicating interest from children in how Spike was doing after launch. With the NRO being such a secretive arm of the United States’ intelligence apparatus, this sort of widespread public interest is a bit out-of-character.

For a recap of today’s launch, be sure to check out the official “highlight reel” from United Launch Alliance embedded below.