The INTRUDER geosynchronous SIGINT spacecraft represents a consolidation of previously discrete COMINT and ELINT collection programs into a single collection platform under the Integrated Overhead SIGINT Architecture [IOSA]. When NRO presented its five-year program to Congress in the fall of 1995, the new satellites under development -- including the INTRUDER signals intelligence satellite -- was estimated to cost roughly a billion dollars apiece. IOSA will improve SIGINT performance and avoid costs by consolidating systems, utilizing medium lift launch vehicles wherever possible, and using new satellite and data processing technologies. At the urging of Congress, NRO initiated the study phase for the follow-on architecture, IOSA-2. These systems are intended to be increasingly responsive to operational needs and the military is an integral partner and participant in NRO space missions.
America's NROL-44 is a massive, open secret — both in size and fact. The US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) planned to launch this new classified satellite in 2020. It is part of a class of US spy satellites called Orion (also known as Mentor or Advanced Orion) that began operation in 1995. But its legacy stretches all the way back to America's original CORONA spy satellites in the 1960s and 70s. NROL-44 was scheduled to launch on August 27 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 2:16 a.m. EDT (0616 UTC). It's one of a set of NRO missions this year, which includes NROL-151, a national security satellite launched in January, and NROL 101, which is yet to come.
NROL-44 is a huge signals intelligence, or SIGINT, satellite, says David Baker, a former NASA scientist who worked on Apollo and Shuttle missions, has written numerous books, including US Spy Satellites and is editor of SpaceFlight magazine. "SIGINT satellites are the core of national government, military security satellites. They are massive things for which no private company has any purpose," says Baker.
The US has launched seven Orion satellites so far. NROL-44 is one of the biggest. "It weighs more than five tons. It has a huge parabolic antenna which unfolds to a diameter of more than 100 meters in space, and it will go into an equatorial plane of Earth at a distance of about 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles)," says Baker.
"The move from wired communication to digital and wireless is a godsend to governments because you can't cut into wires from a satellite, but you can literally pick up cell phone towers which are radiating this stuff into the atmosphere. It takes a massive antenna, but you're able to sit over one spot and listen to all the communications traffic," says Baker.