ULA rocket carrying US spy satellite launched from California

A Delta IV-Heavy rocket carrying a U.S. government spy satellite finally launched into orbit Saturday from California. Technical glitches and unfavorable weather had forced the mission to be nixed several times since early December.

United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, said in a statement that the three-booster rocket was carrying a payload for the National Reconnaissance Office and launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County at 11:10 am local time. The NRO agency is responsible for U.S. intelligence satellites.

The outer boosters of the rocket separated about four minutes into flight, followed by a successful ignition of the central booster. As is customary with classified payloads, ULA webcast the liftoff only until the aerodynamic fairing covering the payload was discarded.

The launch of the top-secret national security payload had been scrubbed several times since last year due to technical problems and unfavorable weather, including ground winds.

The lift off from the base northwest of Los Angeles took place just days after a series of storms pounded the Central California region with heavy rain and wind.

There were mostly clear skies Saturday that allowed people to see the rocket’s contrails from southern and central parts of California, including Los Angeles.

“Congratulations to our team and mission partners for successfully delivering this critical asset to support national security missions,” Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of government and commercial programs said in a release.

According to ULA, the mission — NROL-71 — is the company’s 132nd successful launch since it was formed in December 2006. Details of the mission were not provided.

The 233-foot-tall Delta IV rocket is the heaviest vehicle in ULA’s fleet and can produce more than 2.1 million pounds of thrust and is powered by Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A main engines. The rocket, which weighs about 1.6 million pounds when fully fueled, uses Aerojet’s RL10B-2 propulsion system to power its second stage.

A hydrogen leak in one of the engines was blamed for a scrubbed launch of the mission Dec. 19. A launch scheduled for Dec. 8 also was called off for technical reasons.

ULA said its next scheduled launch is for the Air Force and involves a Delta IV rocket. The launch of the mission, WGS-10, is scheduled for March 13 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

-The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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