ULA Atlas V launches from Space Coast on mission for NRO and Space Force

ORLANDO, Fla. -- United Launch Alliance managed what was only its second launch of the year, sending up an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Sunday morning.

The rocket featuring its most powerful configuration with five solid rocket boosters lifted off at 8:47 a.m. from Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 41 on a mission for the National Reconnaissance Office and Space Force called SILENTBARKER/NROL-107.

ULA’s lone rocket launch in 2023 had been a Delta IV Heavy back in June. Meanwhile, SpaceX with its latest Starlink launch from neighboring SLC 40 on Friday night has managed 63 orbital missions across all its launch complexes including California.

For the Space Coast, the Atlas V launch marked the 48th of the year with all but three coming from SpaceX. Aside from the two now from ULA, Relativity Space managed a launch of its 3D-printed Terran 1 rocket in March. With more than three months to go in the year, the Space Coast is on track to surpass its record 57 launches seen in 2022.

SILENTBARKER’s classified mission, which includes multiple payloads, has a primary goal of placing watchdog satellites in geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) “so that we can understand the intentions of other countries to see what they’re doing in the GEO belts and see if there’s any indications of threats or if it’s just normal operations,” said Chris Scolese, director of the NRO on a media call last week. “That capability will just allow us to have increased understanding of what’s going on there.”

The five boosters that combined with the first-stage produce 2.1 million pounds of thrust on liftoff burned for about 90 seconds and fell away from the first stage that continued until the payload fairing was jettisoned about 3 1/2 minutes into flight. More than 66,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen were placed into the rocket’s first stage and Centaur upper stage.

Centaur, powered by a version of the workhorse Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10 engine, will take its national security payloads to their destination about 24,000 miles away.

This is the 13th time Atlas V has flown with the five boosters since its debut in 2006, which have included NASA’s Juno and New Horizons missions. It’s the 98th Atlas V launch overall and 18th and final launch for the NRO.

ULA has just one Delta IV Heavy left to launch slated for liftoff next year and 18 more Atlas V rockets left including seven designated for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner, nine for the Amazon Project Kuiper satellite constellation and two others, all of which are sold.

The replacement for its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets is the new Vulcan Centaur, which could launch before the end of the year, but has faced a series of delays.

ULA’s next launch is slated for as early as Sept. 26 with the first of Amazon’s nine Atlas V missions aiming to put two test satellites into orbit and pave the way for the remaining Atlas V and several dozen Vulcan launches as well as launches on Arianespace’s in-development Ariana VI and Blue Origin’s in-development New Glenn to stick 3,236 satellites into orbit and compete with the likes of SpaceX’s Starlink and other satellite internet providers.

Atlas V’s last launch before Sunday had been from California in December 2022, and its last Space Coast launch had been in November 2022.

Its next Atlas V launch for Starliner, which last flew on an uncrewed mission to the International Space Station in May 2022, won’t be until at least March 2024 as Boeing fixes issues it found that delayed what would have been its first crewed flight to the ISS earlier this year.

Sunday’s launch marked ULA’s 157th mission since 2006.