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Atlas 5 rocket carries secret payload and hitchikers from Vandenberg AFB

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An Atlas 5 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Complex 3 Thursday night at 11:39pm, PDT. The rocket, designated NROL-39 carried a primary classified payload for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office and a secondary payload of 12 special satellite packages

Hitching a ride on the Atlas 5 were 12 CubeSats or Nano satellites from the following schools and agencies:

• AeroCube5, Aerospace Corp
• ALICE, Air Force Institute of Technology
• CUNYSAT-1, Medgar Evers College, City University of New York
• FIREBIRD, Montana State University, University of New Hampshire, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Aerospace Corp
• IPEX, California Polytechnic State University and PolySat
• MCubed-2, Michigan eXploration Laboratory
• SMDC-ONE (Charlie), SMDC-ONE (David), SNaP
• TacSat-6, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command

Nanosatellites are small satellites weighing ten pounds or less and some are as small as a human hand. The nanosatellite program is sponsored by the NRO's Mission Integration Directorate and NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites, or ELaNa program.

Another unusual aspect of tonight’s launch is that the flight path was in a southwest direction for a retrograde orbit of the payloads. This type of flight path places the payloads moving opposite to the earth’s rotation.

The launch should be visible through most of Southern California and Mexico.

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