SpaceX launches and lands rocket National Reconnaissance Office mission

A Falcon 9 booster stage returns to Landing Zone 4 at Vandenberg Space Force Base, eight minutes after launching the NROL-85 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office. Credit: Gene Blevins / LA Daily News

SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket with a classified payload at dawn Sunday for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency, and landed the booster stage back at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) launcher lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg at 6:13 a.m. PDT (9:13 a.m. EDT; 1313 GMT) Sunday. Nine Merlin engines, burning kerosene fuel and generating 1.7 million pounds of thrust, drove the Falcon 9 southeast from Vandenberg, a military base on California’s Central Coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Flying at the edge of space, the rocket’s reusable first stage shut off its nine engines and separated less than two-and-a-half minutes into the mission. Cold gas nitrogen thrusters pulsed to flip the rocket into a tail-first orientation, then three engines reignited to propel the booster back toward Vandenberg.

The booster stage extended titanium grid fins to help guide its path back into the atmosphere. The rocket guided itself back toward Landing Zone 4, a landing pad just a quarter-mile from the Falcon 9 launch site. A final braking burn by the rocket’s center engine slowed the booster for touchdown, and the rocket extended four telescoping carbon-fiber legs moments before its fog-enshrouded landing.

The landing occurred eight minutes after liftoff, completing the booster’s second trip to space. The rocket stage debuted in February with another launch for the National Reconnaissance Office.

SpaceX’s live webcast of the mission focused on the booster’s return. The public webcast ended its live video coverage of the upper  stage a few minutes after liftoff, honoring a request from the NRO, which keeps details of its missions secret.

The upper stage of the Falcon 9 delivered its top secret cargo to a preliminary orbit less than 10 minutes after launch. The rocket also shed its clamshell-like payload fairing, which was expected to be recovered by a ship positioned in the Pacific Ocean downrange from Vandenberg.

The NRO declared the launch a success about an hour after liftoff.

“I’m proud of the teamwork, skill, and determination that went into making this launch a success and ultimately to delivering critical information to our nation’s policymakers, military, and intelligence community,” said Chris Scolese, director of the NRO.

The mission was codenamed NROL-85. The NRO owns the U.S. government’s fleet of intelligence-gathering spy satellites, supplying optical and radar surveillance imagery, eavesdropping capabilities, and data relay support.

“While we’re unable to discuss the specifics of this launch, we can confirm that we will have more than a half-dozen launches scheduled and a dozen payloads planned for orbit in 2022,” said Nathan Potter, an NRO spokesperson. “We can also confirm NRO is the only organization launching as part of the NROL-85 mission, and there are no rideshares.”

The NRO also develops and launches satellites to locate and track the movements of ships. Before the launch Sunday, there was a broad consensus among independent analysts that the NROL-85 mission will add two new spacecraft to the U.S. government’s naval reconnaissance satellite fleet.

Ted Molczan, an expert tracker of military satellites, told Spaceflight Now he was “100 percent” sure the payloads on the NROL-85 mission launching Friday are the next pair of Intruder-class ship-locating spacecraft.

The circumstances of the NROL-85 mission — its target altitude, inclination, and launch time — all point to the Falcon 9 rocket carrying the next pair of Intruder naval reconnaissance satellites, experts said. The Intruder spacecraft are are sometimes called Naval Ocean Surveillance System, or NOSS, satellites.

The U.S. military, which oversees launch procurement for NRO missions, awarded SpaceX a contract for the NROL-85 launch in 2019. In military procurement documents, officials disclosed the NROL-85 mission would aim to place its payloads into an orbit between 636 miles and 758 miles (1,024 by 1,221 kilometers) in altitude, with an inclination of 63.5 degrees to the equator.

Those orbital parameters match with the known altitude and inclination of previous Intruder satellites. Airspace and maritime warning notices associated with the Falcon 9 launch Sunday confirmed the rocket was expected to follow a trajectory southeast from Vandenberg, lining up with the expect 63.5-degree inclination target orbit.

A Falcon 9 rocket lifts off Sunday from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. Credit: NRO

The NROL-85 mission is “almost certainly” hauling the next pair Intruder, or NOSS, satellites into orbit, wrote Marco Langbroek, a Dutch archaeologist and an expert in satellite movements, in an internet post before the launch.

The Intruder satellites collect data used by the U.S. Navy and government intelligence agencies.

“They geolocate shipping on the high seas, by detecting their radio/radar emissions,” Langbroek wrote on his website. “They always operate in close pairs.”

What’s more, the time of Sunday’s launch closely matched the time the orbital plane of an older pair of Intruder satellites passes over Vandenberg, suggesting the two new spacecraft could be replacements, according to Langbroek.

Recent launches that lofted NRO naval surveillance satellites used United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. The most recent pair of Intruder satellites launched on an Atlas 5 from Vandenberg in 2017, and the two satellites tracking near Vandenberg around the the of Friday’s launch were deployed by an Atlas 5 in 2012.

SpaceX is gearing up for two more Falcon 9 rocket launches later this week from Florida’s Space Coast. A Falcon 9 is set for liftoff from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Thursday, followed by the next Crew Dragon flight with astronauts to the International Space Station on Saturday from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

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