Atlas V rocket

An Atlas 5 rocket sits at Space Launch Complex-3 on south Vandenberg Air Force Base in this file photo from Aug. 2, 2012.

The most powerful Atlas rocket to ever take off from the West Coast is scheduled be launched Thursday evening from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

An Atlas V 541 rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, is expected to blast off during what is believed to be a two-hour launch window beginning at 7:17 p.m. It will carry a secret payload from the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) into orbit. The 20-story rocket will lift off on 2 million pounds of thrust and feature a new upper stage engine that is expected to provide a sound and light show for spectators on the ground.

“Our team and mission partners have put a lot of hard work into preparing for this important mission for our nation," said Col. Keith Balts, the 30th Space Wing commander and Thursday’s launch decision authority. "We are looking forward to a safe and successful launch to close out an amazing year."

The mission — a classified satellite-delivery flight — has been dubbed “NROL-35” by the NRO, a government agency that controls the country’s spy satellites. The NROL-35 will be the 51st Atlas V mission since the vehicle’s inaugural launch in 2002, and the third launch in the 541 configuration. This will be the 10th Atlas V launch from VAFB and the 294th Atlas launch overall, a stretch that dates back to 1959.

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The rocket was stacked on the launch pad over a three-week span beginning in mid-September. The satellite that will be carried aboard the rocket was delivered to the pad Nov. 21.

The 4th Space Launch Squadron is in charge of mission assurance and safety for the launch operation.

"A launch like this takes teamwork and dedication," said Lt. Col. James Bodnar, 4th SLS commander. "Our mission assurance technicians and engineers have worked hand-in-hand with United Launch Alliance going over critical procedures and tasks to ensure this launch is a safe and successful one."

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