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Secret payload launch set this week

A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral in Florida in January.

United Launch Alliance

After a busy 2011, the nation’s spy satellite agency will begin another spurt of launches that kicks off Thursday with a Delta 4 rocket carrying top-secret cargo from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Liftoff of the rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, is planned for 3:30 p.m. from Space Launch Complex-6 on South Base.

Because of its top-secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, the actual launch window remains hush-hush. However, officials have said it will occur before 5:15 p.m.

Unfavorable weather or technical troubles could delay the Delta’s departure.

Launch weather officers expect windy conditions Thursday, leading to a 70-percent likelihood the liftoff will be postponed. They expect conditions will worsen Friday — there’s a 90-percent chance that winds will scrub the launch attempt.

The mission, NRO’s first launch for 2012, follows an extremely busy 2011 in which six satellites were sent to space in seven months from Vandenberg and its East Coast counterpart in Florida.

An NRO official recently spoke about the surge in 2011 and the upcoming mission during a presentation to a subcommittee of the  House Armed Services Committee.

“Last year we executed the most aggressive launch campaign in over 25 years,” Betty Sapp, NRO’s principal deputy director, told lawmakers March 8. “We successfully launched six satellites in seven months and this year with the same determination we’re scheduled to launch four more in five months, with the first scheduled launch later this month.”

She gave credit for the successful “high ops tempo” to NRO’s program teams along with a “strong partnership” with the Air Force launch community.

“These successful launches are a very important and visible reminder of the space reconnaissance mission the NRO started over 50 years ago, and continues with such great success today,” Sapp added.

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This will be the fourth Delta 4 launch from Vandenberg, and the 19th for United Launch Alliance.

After working for the past several months to ready the rocket, mission managers will gather Wednesday for a final launch readiness review to clear the way for countdown and liftoff.

“I’m incredibly proud of the hard work of the men and women of the 4th Space Launch Squadron team in preparing for this Delta 4 mission,” said Lt. Col. Brady Hauboldt, 4th Space Launch Squadron commander and

Air Force launch director for the mission.

“We’ve worked side by side with United Launch Alliance and the entire 30th Space Wing to pull this campaign together over the last few months, and are approaching a final ‘go’ for launch,” he added. “We’re all excited to have the opportunity to launch another Delta 4 and NRO spacecraft, demonstrating once again the 30th Space Wing’s continued contributions to space power.”