ULA's Delta IV Heavy Rocket Finally Launches US Spy Satellite

The NROL-44 spy satellite's capabilities are shrouded in mystery.
Chris Young

United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully launched a U.S. spy satellite, NROL-44, into orbit on Thursday evening (Dec. 10) following months of constant delays — leaving many to wonder whether the mission would ever lift off.

ULA's Delta IV Heavy rocket launched from the newly-named Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at Launch Complex-37 in Florida, Space.com reports.


ULA's NROL-44 mission launch success

The huge rocket launched from Space Launch Complex-37 at 8:09 p.m. EDT (01:09 GMT on Dec. 11) taking the U.S. spy satellite as a payload for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The launch was a complete success as the NROL-44 mission finally lifted off the ground following months of delays caused by issues including hardware errors and launch pad infrastructure problems.

The first few attempts for the NROL-44 mission were a sign of what was to come: originally slated to lift off on August 26, the launch was pushed back 24 hours by the client. Subsequent launch attempts on August 27 and August 29 were then scrapped due to technical issues.

On September 26, a problem with the launch pad's swing arm retraction system caused a further delay, and weather caused the launch to be postponed again on September 29, followed by an onboard computer malfunction on September 30 resulting in a multi-month delay.

Delta IV Heavy era coming to an end

Now, it turns out that the NROL-44 mission wasn't cursed after all. The skies over the launch pad were completely clear just prior to launch with several star constellations reportedly visible above the Delta IV rocket before it lit up the night sky.

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ULA is currently developing its next-gen rocket, the Vulcan Centaur. Some have speculated that the company's focus on its new rocket was partially to blame for the NROL-44 mission delays.

Only four Delta IV Heavy launched remain before the rocket is phased out alongside ULA's Atlas launcher by the end of 2023 — if there are no delays that is.

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