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Spying from Space: U.S. Launches World’s Largest Satellite

The United States has just launched the largest satellite ever to orbit earth; while its exact purpose is secret, we know it’s not going to be monitoring the weather.

Its mission will be to gather intelligence for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.

The satellite, dubbed NROL-32, was sent into orbit yesterday by a Delta 4 Heavy rocket — the largest unmanned rocket with the most powerful liquid-fueled booster. U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Director Bruce Carlson said the NROL-32 would be “the largest satellite in the world.”

All this superlative hugeness isn’t likely just a result of Americans’ obsession with size; in fact, the NRO launches almost as many small vehicles into space as it does large ones. More to the point, however, NROL-32 has a very important job: replacing a slew of Cold War-era satellites currently in orbit past their expiration dates.

Carlson gave an address (links to a PDF that’s a good read on the bureaucracy of space) last month in which he stated that the agency had adopted a new charter and “a remarkably aggressive launch campaign” to go along with it.

Referencing the then-upcoming NROL-32 launch and related launches, Carlson said, “This is the most aggressive launch campaign that the National Reconnaissance Office has had in 20 years… These [satellites] are very important, because they all go to update a constellation which is aging rapidly. We bought most of our satellites for three, five, or eight years, and we’re keeping them on orbit for ten, twelve, and up to twenty years.”

Carlson also said then that those aging satellites “designed to essentially operate during the era of the Soviet Union… are today doing tactical intelligence collection that leads us to actionable intelligence on bad guys every day. Every day.”

We hope the new, huge satellites being sent into orbit will continue to do exactly that, as well as accomplish the NRO’s science and technology goals.

What do you think of this satellite launch?

Image courtesy of United Launch Alliance, Pat Corkery.


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