New U.S. Spy Satellite Launches on Clandestine Mission

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket blasts off from Space Launch Complex-3 at 9:24 p.m. PDT on April 14, 2011 with the classified NROL-34 satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket blasts off from Space Launch Complex-3 at 9:24 p.m. PDT on April 14, 2011 with the classified NROL-34 satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office. (Image credit: Pat Corkery, United Launch Alliance.)

A rocket carrying a new U.S. spy satellite lit up the California night sky Thursday on a secret mission for the National Reconnaissance Office.

The spy satellite NROL-34 soared into orbit atop an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket after launching from a pad at the Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9:24 p.m. PDT (0424 GMT on April 15) to begin the latest classified flight for the NRO.

The details of the satellite's purpose and final orbit are classified, but the new spacecraft will definitely serve a role for the U.S. military, officials said. [Most Destructive Space Weapons]

A close look at the mission emblem for the secretive NROL-34 spy satellite mission as the payload is mated to its Atlas 5 booster in preparation for launch from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on April 14, 2011. (Image credit: United Launch Alliance)

"This launch supports the military's national defense mission," officials with the United Launch Alliance, which orchestrated the satellite launch for the NRO, said in a mission description.

Because of the satellite's secret purpose, a media blackout was put in place about 4 1/2 minutes after the Atlas 5 rocket launched toward orbit. The rocket lifted off with the help of a single solid rocket booster to propel it into space.

Thursday's liftoff was the sixth satellite launch for the NRO since September – a series of secret missions that lifted off from pads at Vandenberg and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Several types of expendable rockets, including  Delta, Minotaur and the Atlas boosters, were used for those missions.

"Six launches in this time is the most aggressive launch schedule for the NRO in two decades," said ULA launch commentator Don Spencer in a webcast.

 The NROL-34 satellite launch followed the successful flight of another spy satellite, called NROL-27, which lifted off on March 11 from Cape Canaveral. [Video: Skywatcher Spots Secret X-37B Space Plane]

Thursday night's liftoff marked the fourth rocket launch of the year for the United Launch Alliance and the 25th flight of an Atlas 5 rocket since the booster's debut in 2002.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.