An unmanned Atlas 5 rocket blasted off from California on Thursday to put a classified spy satellite and 13 tiny experimental spacecraft into orbit for the U.S. government.
The rocket, built and flown by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed-Martin and Boeing, lifted off from a seaside launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 8:49 a.m. EST, a live ULA webcast showed.
The rocket’s primary cargo, owned by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), was not disclosed. But the agency that operates the nation’s spy satellites partnered with the civilian space agency NASA to deliver 13 miniature spacecraft, generically known as CubeSats, into orbit.
NASA is exploring if the small satellites, which typically weigh about 2.2 pounds (1 kg) and can be outfitted with cameras, sensors and other instruments, are suited for interplanetary missions and other space operations.
“NRO and NASA have a long-standing partnership with regard to CubeSats, where we exchange ride-share opportunities when available,” Meagan Hubbell, deputy chief of the NRO’s CubeSat office, told reporters before launch.
Among the CubeSats launched on Thursday is a NASA-backed project to test high-speed optical communications. NRO said it planned to use three CubeSats to test a radio communications system.
University and high school students have built and flown dozens of CubeSats over the past 12 years. Several companies are building businesses around the satellites, including Planet Labs, a Silicon Valley startup that operates a fleet of 87 triple-unit CubeSats to image Earth. The privately owned firm has raised about $183 million in venture capital financing.