The US Space Force Just Launched a Secret Payload Atop NASA's Atlas V Rocket

Along with a new laser-based communications satellite.
Chris Young
Launch of the Atlas V rocketNASA

An Atlas V rocket launched up to orbit at 5:19 am EST (1019 GMT), Dec. 7, taking off with a payload including a NASA laser space communications satellite, and several classified U.S. Space Force technologies, a report from Space.com reveals.

United Launch Alliance's two-stage rocket launched from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force station for a mission called STP-3 (Space Test Program-3). The rocket was set at its most powerful configuration, using five rocket boosters to get to orbit with its heavy payload.

The payload includes two satellites containing several technological prototypes and experiments to be tested in orbit. As these prototypes were commissioned by the U.S. Space Force, the technologies they carry are largely classified.

The little information we do know is that they were sent up to orbit on a new platform designed for long-duration spaceflight. The platform, called the Long Duration Propulsive Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter 1 (LDPE-1), was developed to carry payloads in orbit for up to three years. 

Vastly improving communications for future moon missions

Aside from the U.S. Space Force payloads, NASA did also send up its Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), which was designed to improve the U.S. space agency's space communications in the lead up to the Artemis moon landings, which were recently pushed back to 2025. NASA has traditionally relied on radio communication, and it says its new laser-based system will greatly improve the efficiency of communications.

The US Space Force Just Launched a Secret Payload Atop NASA's Atlas V Rocket
An artist's illustration of NASA's Laser Communications Relay Demonstration. Source: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Today's flight is the 90 Atlas V rocket launch since its manufacturer United Launch Alliance (ULA) was founded in 2002. ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing and their family of Atlas rockets are a continuation of the launch vehicles that first went into orbit in the 1950s. High upper-level winds caused a more than hour-long delay on launch day, and the mission had previously been delayed from its original December 5 launch date due to a fuel leak at the launch pad.

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