SpaceX set to launch top-secret spy payload from California – Spaceflight Now

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket sits horizontal at Space Launch Complex 4-East on Tuesday ahead of a mission for the National Reconnaissance Office. Credit: Brian Sandoval/Spaceflight Now

A classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office is encased in the nose cone of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for liftoff Wednesday from California’s central coast, debuting a brand new booster that will land near the launch site to be reused on another national security mission later this year.

Liftoff from Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg Space Force Base, marking SpaceX’s fifth launch of the year at 12:18 p.m. PST (3:18 p.m. EST; 2018 GMT).

The mission from the US government’s spy satellite agency will aim to place its payload into a north-south polar orbit about 318 miles (512 kilometers) above Earth. But little is known to the public about the spacecraft intended to lift SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket into orbit from Vandenberg.

“I unfortunately can’t really provide any (public) details, which is really frustrating for me in one respect, because I’m not able to communicate precisely what kind of capability this is going to provide in orbit,” said Collar. Chad Davis, director of the NRO Space Launch Office.

In general, Davis said, the NRO puts “in-orbit capabilities to save lives.”

“It’s our US and allied forces on the ground that use these kinds of capabilities on a daily basis,” Davis said. “So support the fight on the ground, so to speak, bring them home safely and provide our national decision makers with the most detailed information possible so that they can make informed decisions. It’s that kind of capability set that this mission will fall into.

The NRO operates a fleet of intelligence-gathering satellites, capturing razor-sharp optical and radar imagery around the world. The agency also has spacecraft to track foreign naval deployments, eavesdrop on adversary communications and relay surveillance imagery between spy satellites and intelligence analysts on the ground.

The top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket payload fairing is pictured on Tuesday, the day before launch with a National Reconnaissance Office satellite. Credit: Brian Sandoval/Spaceflight Now

The mission scheduled to launch this week is codenamed NROL-87. This is the third SpaceX mission for the NRO and the first NRO mission booked with SpaceX under the U.S. Space Force’s National Security Space Launch program, which oversees the world’s most expensive satellite launch services and most critical of the army.

The NRO booked two previous missions on Falcon 9 rockets that launched from Florida in 2017 and 2020 through lower-cost commercial contract deals, avoiding close military oversight.

The NROL-87 mission returns to the established formula for the many NRO missions that have flown on United Launch Alliance Atlas and Delta rockets.

But there is one key difference with the Falcon 9 launching from California this week. Unlike disposable, single-use Atlas and Delta rockets, the Falcon 9 is powered by a reusable first-stage booster.

The Falcon 9 first stage will return to Vandenberg Landing Zone 4, located just west of the SpaceX launch pad, for a vertical landing approximately eight minutes after liftoff. Local residents will hear double sonic booms as the nearly 16-story rocket returns to land.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket at Vandenberg Space Force Base before the launch of the NROL-87 mission. Credit: Gene Blevins/LA Daily News

The second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket will propel the NROL-87 payload into orbit. The launch vehicle’s payload fairing will jettison minutes into the mission, and a SpaceX recovery team in the Pacific Ocean will rip the fairing halves from the sea after they descend under parachutes.

The booster driving the NROL-87 mission, designated B1071 in SpaceX’s fleet, has just rolled out of the factory and is set to launch on its first trip to space. The first stage will be reused on another NRO mission later this year, according to an NRO spokesperson.

SpaceX and ULA have won the Phase 2 National Security Space Launch contracts awarded by the US Space Force in 2020, ending a long-running competition for deals to launch the most critical space missions and the most expensive in the military, beating proposals from Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin.

The Space Force will order Phase 2 missions from ULA and SpaceX through the end of 2024 for launches that could take place through the end of 2027.

ULA, a 50-50 joint venture formed in 2006 by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will get 60% of national security space launch contracts for missions in that period. SpaceX will receive 40%.

The NROL-87 mission was awarded to SpaceX in 2019, before the Space Force announced phase 2 contracts.

Procurement documents released prior to SpaceX’s selection as the launch vendor indicated that the NROL-87 mission would deploy its cargo into an orbit approximately 318 miles above Earth, at an inclination of 97.4 degrees per relative to the equator.

Orbital parameters suggest the payload could be part of a new generation of NRO optical surveillance satellites. Davis, the NRO’s launch program manager, confirmed during a pre-launch media conference call that the NROL-87 mission will carry a “single payload” into orbit.

The Falcon 9 rocket will have enough propellant reserved to return to Vandenberg for landing, indicating that the NRO payload is relatively light.

The official NROL-87 mission patch. Credit: NRO

As launch schedules stand, Davis said the NRO has seven launches planned over an eight-month period, starting with mission NROL-87 this week.

“We’re looking at something like half a dozen for the calendar year, deploying 12 payloads,” Davis said. “If I take a snapshot today, that number is seven launches in eight months, as it is today, from three different continents.”

Davis did not specify mission numbers or launch providers for the remaining NRO launches this year, but two of the remaining six missions are believed to be part of the National Security Space Launch Program – the NROL-85 launch on another SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and the NROL-91 mission on a ULA Delta 4-Heavy rocket.

Last year, the NRO said it had booked two launch missions on Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicles from New Zealand. These two launches – NROL-162 and NROL-199 – likely represent two more missions later this year.

Davis also did not identify the third continent that will host an NRO mission in 2022. One possibility could be a planned launch by US-based Virgin Orbit of its small aerial rocket off the coast of the United States. England this summer.

The launch of the NROL-87 mission from Vandenberg, located on the Pacific coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco, comes amid a series of busy missions on SpaceX’s schedule.

SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket Monday night from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station with an Italian radar remote sensing satellite. Another Falcon 9 rocket loaded with a cluster of Starlink internet satellites stands on Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for a launch opportunity at 4:51 p.m. EST (2151 GMT) Wednesday, just 93 minutes later. SpaceX’s planned launch from Vandenberg.

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