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Secret spy satellite launches from Vandenberg AFB

An Atlas V rocket lights up the night sky Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in a view from Goleta. The rocket was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base just before 11 p.m. on a top-secret mission for the nation’s spy satellite agency.
An Atlas V rocket lights up the night sky Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in a view from Goleta. The rocket was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base just before 11 p.m. on a top-secret mission for the nation’s spy satellite agency.

After two delays, an Atlas V rocket roared to life at Vandenberg Air Force Base in northern Santa Barbara County late Saturday en route to delivering clandestine cargo for the nation’s spy satellite agency.

Standing nearly 20 stories tall and weighing about 1.1 million pounds with fuel, the United Launch Alliance rocket lifted off at 10:49 p.m. from Space Launch Complex-3 on South Base.

Clear skies provided the perfect backdrop for spectators to follow the rocket’s flight for several minutes. Groups of people with their eyes on the sky were clustered at various locations around the Central Coast.

The rocket carried a National Reconnaissance Office payload for a mission dubbed NROL-42, but the exact duties of the new spacecraft remain top secret.

Earlier this month, the rocket launch was delayed a week by Hurricane Irma, which was hammering Florida, and it was delayed two more days by a faulty battery.

For ULA, NRO and the 4th Space Launch Squadron, this marked the second Atlas V rocket launch of 2017 from Vandenberg, following another on March 1. And Saturday night’s launch marked ULA’s 25th mission for the spy satellite agency since 2002.

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The Altas V rocket produced blinding light and a thunderous rumble as it left the launchpad at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. Ronald Williams

With Atlas off the ground, the team now will turn its full focus to a Delta IV launch later this year from Space Launch Complex-6 on South Base.

And another launch, of a Space Exploration Technologies Falcon rocket, is planned for 6:06 a.m. Oct. 4 from Space Launch Complex-4 on South Base.

That booster will carry the next 10 Iridium satellites into orbit, boosting the number to 30 for efforts to build a second-generation constellation of craft to enable communications across the globe.

Those satellites have already arrived at Vandenberg, where they are being prepped for launch.

Also in October, Orbital ATK plans to conduct a Minotaur C launch of 10 commercial Earth-imaging spacecraft at 2:37 p.m. Oct. 17 from Vandenberg.

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.

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

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