Tuesday night at 8:10 EDT, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifted off from Kennedy Space Complex after a short weather delay, marking the 11th successful launch for ULA this year and it’s 60th mission from Cape Canaveral.
The rocket was carrying a satellite known only as CLIO, which it delivered into an unidentified (though probably geosynchronous) orbit. The satellite was built by Lockheed Martin and based on that company’s A2100 Satellite bus. This framework is typically used for telecommunications satellites, and according to Lockheed, over 40 satellites with the A2100 bus are currently in orbit.
The level of secrecy for this satellite is somewhat unusual, especially since the U.S. government agency which is the customer for this satellite hasn’t been identified at all. For example, even satellites intended for use to gather intelligence data are typically identified as being launched on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
In a press release, Lockheed’s executive VP, Rick Ambrose, merely commented as follows: “We are very proud to deliver mission success for our U.S. Government customer. Our A2100 bus provides outstanding reliability, flexibility and proven performance, all at an affordable cost to our customers.”
Due to the secrecy behind the launch, candidate agencies would most likely be the National Security Agency (NSA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Other possibilities include the U.S. Air Force or Navy, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
Some have speculated that the satellite will be used for classified communications, while others say it may conduct visual or electronic surveillance of other satellites.
The CLIO mission draws parallels to the secrecy of the PAN launch five years ago. Neither the exact purpose of PAN nor its operating agency have been disclosed to the public. Whether CLIO will replace or augment PAN’s capabilities or whether it will operate from a completely different orbit remains to be seen.