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Spy satellite launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base
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Spy satellite launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base

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A highly classified National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Monday with the help of one of the last Delta IV rockets.

Liftoff occurred at 1:47 p.m. from Space Launch Complex-6, carrying the satellite into space and with a mission so secret that base officials received no information about the satellite from either of the agencies involved in the launch, which also included the Air Force, according to Patrick Harrower, a 30th Space Wing Public Affairs spokesman. 

The Delta IV rocket is one of the last four that will be used, with at least three more slated for launch, including one from Vandenberg and two from Cape Canaveral, according to Harrower.

Hours before the launch, a cloud layer obscured the ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains until it cleared shortly before countdown began.

As the launch occurred, a plume of smoke emerged from just south of the mountain ridge near Point Arguello, where SLC-6 is located.

A bright orange flame appeared below the rocket, creating a thick trail of smoke, that lifted off in a southerly direction. More plumes of smoke were created and lingered midair as the boosters jettisoned, which produced a low growl that echoed over the Central Coast. 

Monday's launch was the 13th Delta IV Heavy for the NRO and the 386th overall launch of a Delta rocket, which have been in use since 1960, according to ULA officials. 

Thirteen Delta IV's have been launched into space from Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral since 2004 and nine of them carried NRO satellites. 

The NRO is the U.S. intelligence agency responsible for developing and building reconnaissance satellites for national security purposes.

“The NRO and ULA didn’t release anything (about the mission),” Harrower said. “That’s typical for the NRO, which keeps everything close.”

The highly secretive agency was created under President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, although its existence wasn’t revealed until years later, after a Senate committee inadvertently referenced the NRO in an Oct. 12, 1973, report suggesting the government print budget reports on intelligence agencies, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The NRO didn't officially acknowledge its existence until 1992. 

The spy agency, which is headquartered in Chantilly, Virginia, has satellite offices located at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and at Vandenberg, where the NRO is responsible for the “transportation, integration and processing” of its satellites.

The NRO’s first program was CORONA, a series of satellites that took surveillance photos of America’s adversaries from space until the early 1970s. The program was declassified following a Feb. 22, 1995, executive order signed by President Bill Clinton. 

“When the United States needs eyes and ears in critical places where no human can reach — be it over the most rugged terrain or through the most hostile territory — it turns to the NRO,” according to ULA officials.

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