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Monster rocket to launch from California today, how to see it

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
August 28th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

With minimal fanfare, the United States is preparing to launch the largest rocket in its arsenal from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California today. The Delta-IV "Heavy" rocket will loft a top-secret spy satellite payload into space. The launch should be quick, but visible for a few minutes across central and Southern California.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The launch is set for 11:03 am, a time when most people are working or busy with some other errand or chore, and few are outside. Under the cover of such busyness, the United Launch Alliance, which is the contractor carrying out the launch, will ignite the three boosters of a massive Delta IV rocket currently waiting on a pad nestled along a secluded California shoreline.

Once the rocket ignites, it will streak skyward with a bright exhaust plume visible for miles. It will leave behind a trail of vapor that will quickly dissipate. Those who miss the launch will notice the lingering trail, and dismiss it as a high-flying airplane.

The rocket is a triple-wide, meaning it has two large boosters strapped to its sides, akin to the space shuttle. However, this system uses no solid rocket motors, but instead is fueled by mixing hydrogen and oxygen. The shuttle used this same system, but its boosters were solid rocket motors, which produced a brighter flame and a longer exhaust trail.

This launch will be the second such launch of a Delta IV heavy from Vandenburg. Previous launches of this rocket have otherwise been at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Delta-IV rocket is the largest and most powerful one in American service today.

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Launches from Vandenburg are rarer than launches from Cape Canaveral, but the site is useful because it sends payloads on an entirely different trajectory. Satellites flown from Cape Canaveral fly west to east around the globe, following the Earth's rotation and even getting a small boost from it.

Satellites launched from Vandenberg fly south to north, on circumpolar orbits. This is ideal for spy satellites which can then monitor every inch of the planet on their orbits. Spy satellites are among the most common objects flown from Vandenburg for this reason.

Launches from the secretive location are rare, but happen at least a few times annually. Normally, the rockets are smaller. Not much attention is called to the launches because of their often-secret nature.

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Notably, the Delta IV launch pad was originally built for the space shuttle, however the shuttle never flew from that site.

Also notably, the rocket will fly at a time when the United States is on the brink of military conflict with Syria and at odds with other powerful nations because of it. Although the rocket was scheduled for launch more than a year in advance, the launch cannot also help but send a message to the world that the United States is powerful and has the tools it needs to do any job the president orders.

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If the flight is successful and everything goes as planned, the satellite could be in operational within days of launch. However, all information regarding the launch will be blacked out within minutes of ignition because of the secret nature of the project.

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Those living in Southern California should look to the Pacific Ocean in the few minutes following 11:03 am. The rocket will streak across the sky, flying upwards and to the south, southwest. no telescope or other equipment is needed, although binoculars may reveal a bit more detail to watchers.

Too far away? View the mission's progress here.

NOTE: This article has been edited to update the new launch time, which changed from 10:52 am to 11:03.

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