A Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from the SLC-4E launch site at Vandenberg Space Force Base to begin mission NROL-87 for the National Reconnaissance Office. Credit: Brian Sandoval/Spaceflight Now

SpaceX on Wednesday carried a classified payload into orbit for the US government’s spy satellite agency from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, achieving another successful launch and landing on the second of three planned Falcon 9 rocket missions. this week.

The launch from California followed a Falcon 9 mission from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station Monday evening with an Italian radar satellite. SpaceX has another Falcon 9 rocket on a launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for liftoff Thursday along with 49 other Starlink internet satellites.

A Falcon 9 rocket lifted away from Space Launch Complex 4-East in Vandenberg at 12:27:26 a.m. PST (3:27:26 p.m. EST; 8:27:26 p.m. GMT), powered by nine Merlin engines burning of kerosene and generating 1.7 million pounds of thrust.

The cargo aboard the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket was a payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, which owns the government’s fleet of spy satellites mapping Earth with optical and radar imagery, monitoring communications from foreign adversaries , and tracking global naval movements.

The Falcon 9 rocket headed south from Vandenberg, located on the Pacific coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and passed through the atmosphere within the first few minutes of flight.

The rocket’s first stage shut down and separated after firing for nearly two and a half minutes. Three of the booster-stage Merlin engines fired to propel the rocket toward Vandenberg, while the Falcon 9’s second-stage engine fired to continue accelerating into orbit.

The nearly 16-story booster stage followed an arc to a maximum altitude of 89 miles (144 kilometers) before plunging back to Earth, using hypersonic grid fins and engine burns to slow down for a vertical landing at Vandenberg. Four legs fanned out from the base of the rocket as it touched down on the ground in Landing Zone 4, SpaceX’s west coast landing site, a quarter mile from the ramp launch of the mission.

SpaceX’s live webcast followed the rocket’s descent and landing with onboard camera views. The company confirmed separation of the payload fairing from the upper stage nearly three minutes into the mission, revealing the classified NRO payload after reaching space.

But updates on the upper tier’s progress stopped there at the behest of the NRO, which hides its missions in secrecy, citing national security concerns.

The upper stage was expected to fire approximately six minutes to place the NRO payload into a preliminary orbit. A second burn was expected after the rocket flew halfway around the world, setting the stage for the deployment of the top-secret spy spacecraft.

But all of these steps happened in secret. In a press release about two hours after launch, the National Reconnaissance Office declared the mission, which was codenamed NROL-87, a success.

“Falcon 9 orbited a national security payload before the reusable rocket booster landed safely in Landing Zone 4,” officials wrote in an NRO press release. “NROL-87 is designed, built and operated by the NRO to support its aerial reconnaissance mission.”

The Falcon 9 rocket aimed to place its payload in a north-south polar orbit about 318 miles (512 kilometers) above Earth, with an inclination of 97.4 degrees to the equator. But little is known about the spacecraft that piloted 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.

Target orbital parameters suggest the payload could be part of a new generation of NRO optical surveillance satellites. Davis, who served as NROL-87’s mission director, confirmed in a pre-launch media conference call that the rocket would carry a “single payload” into orbit.

The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket had enough propellant reserved to return to Vandenberg for landing, indicating that the NROL-87 payload was relatively light.

The official NROL-87 mission patch. Credit: NRO

The launch Wednesday was the third SpaceX mission for the NRO, and the first NRO mission booked with SpaceX through the US Space Force’s National Security Space Launch Program, which oversees the most expensive satellite launch services and most critical of the military.

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 returned to the established formula for the many NRO missions that flew on United Launch Alliance Atlas and Delta rockets.

But there is a key difference with the Falcon 9 rocket. Unlike disposable, single-use Atlas and Delta rockets, the Falcon 9 is powered by a reusable first-stage booster.

The first stage flown on Wednesday is designated B1071 in SpaceX’s reusable rocket inventory. It will fly again on another NRO spy satellite launch later this year, officials said.

SpaceX’s recovery team in the Pacific Ocean was able to rip the fairing halves of the rocket’s payload from the sea after they were lowered under parachutes.

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 occur 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 this period. SpaceX will receive 40%.

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

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.

As the NRO prepares for more missions later this year, SpaceX will continue its fast launch cadence with another Falcon 9 liftoff scheduled for Thursday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That mission is scheduled to launch at 1:13 p.m. EST (6:13 p.m. GMT) with 49 other Starlink satellites for SpaceX’s global internet network.

SpaceX has launched more than 2,000 private Starlink satellites to date, delivering high-speed, low-latency internet services to consumers in more than 20 countries.

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