US to Launch Secret Spy Satellite Saturday

The United States' newest spy satellite will finally get off the ground this weekend, if all goes according to plan.

The NROL-71 spacecraft is scheduled to launch atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base on Saturday (Jan. 19) at 2:05 p.m. EST (1905 GMT; 11:05 a.m. local California time), ULA representatives announced yesterday (Jan. 15).

You can watch the launch here at, courtesy of ULA, or directly via the company.

The mobile service tower rolls back from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying NRO's NROL-71 mission in preparation for launch from Space Launch Complex 6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Liftoff is targeted for Jan. 19, 2018. (Image credit: United Launch Alliance)

ULA had originally targeted early December for NROL-71's liftoff, but bad weather and technical issues pushed the launch back multiple times. The most recent attempt, on Dec. 19, was nixed because of a slight hydrogen leak on the Delta IV Heavy — an issue that has taken several weeks to resolve.

"We continue to remedy the technical issues that caused the last scrub of the Delta IV Heavy, and are working with our partners, the National Reconnaissance Office [NRO] and the U.S. Air Force, to ensure that we fly when it is safe to do so," Gary Wentz, ULA's vice president of government and commercial programs, said in a statement on Jan. 5. "We understand that this is a high-priority mission for the nation's war fighters, and we take our commitment to safety and mission assurance seriously."

NROL-71 will be operated by the NRO, which manages the United States' fleet of spy satellites. The activities of such spacecraft are generally classified, and NROL-71 is no different. Government officials have not disclosed details about the satellite's mission, and ULA is expected to end its launch webcast about 6 minutes after liftoff to help preserve secrecy.

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us @Spacedotcom or Facebook. Originally published on

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.