Atlas 5 for the Silentbarker mission is pictured on the launch pad on Monday. Image: Adam Bernstein/Spaceflight Now A tropical storm moving toward the Florida peninsula has forced United Launch Alliance (ULA) behind schedule for Tuesday’s Atlas 5 launch.
Forecasters predict Tropical Storm Idalia will become a major Category 3 hurricane when it makes landfall on Wednesday. ULA announced late Monday night that it would return the rocket to the safety of the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) ahead of the storm “out of an abundance of caution for personnel safety” and for “critical national security payload safety.” .
Earlier in the day, during a pre-launch press conference to discuss the mission, dubbed NROL-107, or Silentbarker, ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno noted that the likelihood of weather disruptions for the planned launch time of 8:34 EDT (1234 UTC) Tuesday, on Aug. 29, was only 20 percent, but that increased the 80 percent chance that the weather would not reach the backup launch capability.
“The strong wind will be a concern. We can do about 54 knots sitting on the pallet, and so if we can’t do that, the next option in nature is a few days off,” said Bruno. “I won’t say the date yet because it’s still being negotiated, but we’ll have to wait.”
If ULA had rolled the dice and tried on Tuesday and failed to launch, there would have been no time to move Atlas 5 before bad weather hit.
“It takes 24 hours when we’re full of cryos [liquid propellants] back off so we can get back to the VIF and zip it up to keep the wind out,” Bruno explained Monday morning.
The Silentbarker mission will launch a satellite into Geostationary Orbit (GEO) on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and in collaboration with the US Space Systems Command, part of the US Space Force.
At a press event Monday morning, NRO Director Christopher Scolese described it as a “watchdog” capable of tracking other satellites in GEO space.
“You’ve heard about the movement of communication satellites from one place to another to provide better coverage to other areas. Of course we want to see that, so we know what’s going on in that area,” Scolese said. “But we also want to know if there is something unexpected happening or something that shouldn’t be happening that could threaten a high-value asset, either ours or one of our allies.”
According to Scolese, NROL-107 will be the first of at least two mission launches in support of the Silentbarker program, with initial operational capability beginning in 2026. That launch on the Atlas 5 rocket will include more than one payload, but officials declined to elaborate.
The top-secret payload, shrouded in the Atlas 5’s hood, is codenamed Silentbarker. Image: Michael Cain/Spaceflight Now. Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein emphasized the importance of the mission in opening remarks Monday.
“The capabilities that we’re going to launch … go a long way toward giving us the competitive endurance, the competitive edge in space to not only see but to sustain GEO threats,” Guetlein said.
ULA will set a new launch date once the storm passes in coordination with NRO and SSC.