Lacrosse (satellite)

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NRO Lacrosse.jpg
Image released by the NRO, reportedly showing a Lacrosse satellite under construction
Manufacturer Lockheed Martin
Country of origin United States
Operator U.S. National Reconnaissance Office
Applications Radar imaging
Regime Low Earth
Status Out of Production
Built 5 known
Launched 5
Operational 3
Retired 2
First launch USA-34, 1988-12-03
Last launch USA-182, 2005-04-30

Lacrosse or Onyx is a series of terrestrial radar imaging reconnaissance satellites operated by the United States National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). While not officially confirmed by the NRO or the Government of the United States for a long time, there was and is widespread evidence to confirm its existence, including one NASA website.[1] In July 2008, the NRO itself declassified the existence of their synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite constellation.[2][3]

According to former Director of Central Intelligence Admiral Stansfield Turner, Lacrosse had its origins in 1978 when a dispute between the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Air Force as to whether a combined optical/radar reconnaissance satellite (the CIA proposal) or a radar-only one (the USAF proposal) should be developed was resolved in favor of the USAF.

Lacrosse uses synthetic aperture radar as its prime imaging instrument.[4][5] It is able to see through cloud cover and also has some ability to penetrate soil, though there have been more powerful instruments deployed in space for this specific purpose[specify]. Early versions are believed to have used the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) to relay imagery to a ground station at White Sands, New Mexico.[6] There are some indications that other relay satellites may now be available for use with Lacrosse. The name Lacrosse is used to refer to all variants, while Onyx is sometimes used to refer to the three newer units.[citation needed]

Unit costs (including launch) in 1990 dollars are estimated to be in the range of US$0.5 to 1.0 billion.[7]


It had been anticipated that the Lacrosse satellites would be replaced by the radar component of the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA). The severe program problems encountered by FIA in the early 2000s (decade) led to a plan to off-load radar reconnaissance to the Space Based Radar, later simplified to Space Radar, with initial launch anticipated around 2015.[8] This program itself was axed by Congress late 2008.[5] The launch of NROL-41 (USA 215) in September 2010 has all orbital characteristics of a radar remote sensing platform (see FIA) and could be the first of a Lacrosse follow-up program. Its orbit is a retrograde version of the "frozen" Lacrosse orbit,[9] the choice for a retrograde orbit itself indicating a SAR role.[10]


Constellation of the Lacrosse (Onyx) SAR satellites currently in orbit (August 2011)

Five Lacrosse spacecraft have been launched, with three currently in orbit. The Lacrosses move in orbital planes either 68° or 57° inclined. These orbital inclinations of 68° and 57°, combined with their altitude give the satellites a complete view of the Earth's surface, including the poles. Lacrosse 5 appears to differ somewhat from the previous four satellites. As determined by amateur observers, there are subtle differences in its orbit, and its color is somewhat whiter than the distinct red-orange tint of the earlier ones. Most strikingly, it sometimes fades from brightness to invisibility within the space of a few seconds while still in full sunlight. (The amateurs call this rapid fade its "disappearing trick".)

Name COSPAR ID[11]
Launch date
Launch vehicle Launch site Launch
Orbit Decay date Remarks
USA-34 1988-106B
2 December 1988
Space Shuttle Atlantis
KSC LC-39B N/A 437 km × 447 km × 57.0° 25 March 1997
USA-69 1991-017A
8 March 1991
Titan IV(403)A VAFB SLC-4E N/A 420 km × 662 km × 68.0° 26 March 2011[12] First Titan IV launch from Vandenberg
USA-133 1997-064A
24 October 1997
Titan IV(403)A VAFB SLC-4E NROL-3 666 km × 679 km × 57.0° In orbit
USA-152 2000-047A
17 August 2000
Titan IV(403)B VAFB SLC-4E NROL-11 695 km × 689 km × 68.0° In orbit After initial orbit, minor adjustments were made, sending it to 675 km × 572 km × 68.1°.
USA-182 2005-016A
30 April 2005
Titan IV(403)B CCAFS SLC-40 NROL-16 712 km × 718 km × 57.0° In orbit Final Titan launch from Cape Canaveral

See also[edit]


  • Jeffrey T. Richelson, America's Secret Eyes in Space, New York, Harper & Row, 1990
  • Stansfield Turner, Burn Before Reading, New York, Hyperion, 2005
  • "Spy Satellites: Entering a New Era", Science, 24 March 1989

External links[edit]