Atlas V rocket launch on track for clandestine mission from Vandenberg

A truck transports cargo to Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base to be placed atop the Atlas V rocket.
A truck transports cargo to Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base to be placed atop the Atlas V rocket.

For the second time this year, an Atlas V rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base is ready to carry clandestine cargo for the nation’s spy satellite agency Thursday night, assuming weather cooperates.

Liftoff of the United Launch Alliance space booster from the Santa Barbara County base is planned during a period opening at 10:38 p.m. Thursday. Due to the hush-hush mission, the length of the launch window remains unknown but isn’t expected to extend beyond 11:35 p.m. based on notices warning boaters to remain out of the area.

The launch weather forecast calls for a 40 percent likelihood that weather conditions — specifically, visibility and ground winds — will prompt a delay.

The mission, called NROL-42, will carry a payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, which typically remains mum about specific capabilities of its craft.

“Every mission has unique requirements and every mission has unique challenges. Both the space vehicle and the launch vehicle are very complex machines, so we do run into some technical issues,”​ Lt. Col. Kenneth Decker, 4th Space Launch Squadron commander said. “Anytime there’s something with elevated risk, we step back and we perform that independent look. ... Our focus is to ensure these critical payloads make it to orbit.”

The Department of Defense released video footage of the successful ICBM Intercept System test. A "kill vehicle" launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Tuesday, May 30, 2017, collided with an intercontinental ballistic missile target similar to

This mission was delayed a week to allow ULA employees from Florida to return home and focus on the safety of their families and homes during Hurricane Irma.

This will be ULA’s sixth launch of 2017, including missions from Florida and California, and it comes six months after another Atlas launch from Vandenberg for a different NRO mission.

While Vandenberg has restricted access, there are several spots around the Lompoc Valley offering views of the launch, including the peak of Harris Grade Road, West Ocean Avenue or locations in Vandenberg Village. Vandenberg officials do not plan to open the Hawk’s Nest viewing site for this launch.

The roar and thin yellow contrails from Vandenberg launches can also usually be heard and seen from San Luis Obispo County, especially the South County, depending on weather and the rocket’s trajectory.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz.

Vandenberg Air Force Base launched an unarmed Minuteman III missile off the California coast on Wednesday, August 2, 2017. It was launched to a test range near the Marshall Islands, about 4,200 miles away.

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