The makers and operators of America’s spy satellites have lofted at least 13 assets on their way to orbit with the early morning launch today of NROL-39, atop the always impressive Atlas V rocket.
The main payload may be a highly advanced space radar, according to several educated guesses (which is about the best we can hope for at this stage). Canadian Ted Molczan, one of the most reliable and obsessive observers of spy satellites, believes NROL-39 may be a surviving piece of the now-cancelled Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), as do several other close watchers of classified orbital objects. From what I’ve heard, this is the third launch of the series that began with the ill-fated US 193, the NRO satellite that famously served as target practice for our missile defense (read satellite killer) systems in 2008. (Note that USA 193 was not, according to the best sources I had, part of FIA.)
The huge payload also included one dozen nanosats, part of the Government Experimental Multi-Satellite payload (GEMSat) program. The Naval Postgraduate School’s CubeSat Launcher actually deploys the satellites. Four of the satellites were built by universities; four were built by the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC); one each by the the Aerospace Corp., a federal non-profit company, and the Air Force Institute of Technology. I can’t account for the other four at this point but they may be from the NASA CubeSat program.
The NRO satellite may well not actually operate whatever nifty optical-radar systems it contains for several months — or more. It takes time to position the satellite, ensure all its systems work as expected and perform baseline tests to ensure the data it supplies can be accurately understood and verified.