Launch Photos: Spy Satellite NROL-71 Soars on Secret Mission Atop Delta IV Heavy Rocket

Spy Satellite NROL-71 Lifts Off!

United Launch Alliance

On Jan. 19, 2019, a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launched the clandestine NROL-71 spy satellite on a secret mission for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. See amazing photos of the launch here. In this photo, the Delta IV lifts off from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, beginning NROL-71's journey to space.

Rockets and Blossoms

United Launch Alliance

Brilliant yellow flowers offer a bit of nature in this amazing photo of the NROL-71 spy satellite launch on a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket.

The View from Afar

United Launch Alliance

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying the classified NROL-71 spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office launches toward space from Space Launch Complex-6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California on Jan. 19, 2019.

Farewell, NROL-71

United Launch Alliance

A massive American flag helps salute the launch of NROL-71 on its classified spy satellite mission.

Wild Blue Yonders

United Launch Alliance

The Pacific Ocean is a picturesque backdrop to ULA's Delta IV Heavy launch of NROL-71.

Ascent to Space

United Launch Alliance

United Launch Alliance cameras showed the Delta IV Heavy booster soar into a clear blue sky on its mission to send NROL-71 into orbit.

Roaring Rocket

United Launch Alliance

This infrared view shows the massive plume from the three first-stage boosters of the massive Delta IV Heavy rocket as it powers spaceward with the NROL-71 spy satellite on board.

A Trail to Space

United Launch Alliance

The plume of NROL-71's launch clearly stood out in blue sky.

Booster Separation

United Launch Alliance

One of two side boosters can be seen separating from the core first stage booster during the Delta IV Heavy's launch into space with NROL-71.

Going Silent

United Launch Alliance

This image from a camera on the upper stage of NROL-71's Delta IV Heavy rocket shows half of the protective payload fairing (upper right) as it falls away during ascent. About 6 minutes after launch, the fairing fell away, exposing the NROL-71 satellite to space for the first time. The United Launch Alliance cut off all live video feeds and mission updates at that time, at the request of the National Reconnaissance Office, which is typical of such launches.

Long Road to Launch

United Launch Alliance

The road to launch was long for NROL-71. ULA and NRO officials hoped to launch the mission in early December 2018, but a technical glitch and bad weather prevented early attempts.

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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.