SpaceX launches multiple satellites for the NRO from Vandenberg Space Force Base

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Vandenberg Space Force Base on the NROL-186 mission on June 28, 2024. Image: SpaceX

SpaceX launched a national security mission on behalf of the United States’ National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) from Vandenberg Space Force Base Friday night. The spy agency described the classified mission as “the second launch of NRO’s proliferated architecture, delivering critical space-based ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) to the nation.”

The Falcon 9 rocket supporting this mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) at the opening of a two-hour window, 8:14 p.m. PDT (11:14 p.m. EDT, 0314 UTC).

The Falcon 9 first stage booster supporting this mission, tail number B1081 in the SpaceX fleet, launched for an eighth time. Its previous missions included the launches of the Crew-7 astronaut mission to the International Space Station, two climate monitoring satellites (NASA’s PACE and the European Space Agency’s EarthCARE) and two Starlink flights.

A little more than eight minutes after liftoff, B1081 landed on the droneship, ‘Of Course I Still Love You.’ This was the 95th booster landing for OCISLY and the 326th booster landing to date.

Proliferated architecture grows

This mission was the second launch of the NRO’s so-called “proliferated architecture,” following the launch of the NROL-146 mission in May. Reporting from Reuters earlier this year suggested that these satellites are based on the SpaceX-built Starshield satellite bus in partnership with Northrop Grumman.

In a statement to Spaceflight Now, the NRO said:

“NRO systems are designed, built and operated by the NRO. As a matter of national security we do not discuss the companies associated with the building of our systems, our contractual relationships with them, their specific activities, or the locations where NRO systems are built.”

The agency also declined to confirm how many satellites are on these missions as well as their orbit. In a speech before this year’s Space Symposium in Colorado, Dr. Troy Meink, the principal deputy director of the NRO, said there would be “approximately half a dozen of these launches” this year.

These mission were not procured as part of the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 task order. That’s because the NRO needed these missions to move forward prior to the Phase 3 task order missions being assigned.

“The NRO is partnered with USSF Space Systems Command’s Assured Access to Space Team in the acquisition of Phase 3 and influenced the development of Phase 3, Lane 1 – as a means of procuring flexible launch solutions with tailorable mission assurance,” an NRO spokesperson said in a statement. ” When considering our launch cadence and need for tailorable mission assurance, the NRO recognized that we needed a bridge between Phase 2 to Phase 3 – Lane 1. This resulted in some missions being procured outside of NSSL. NSSL has, and will continue to be, the NRO’s principal mechanism to procure launch services.”