NRO is using SpaceX’s commercial launch service for spy satellite payloads – SpaceFlight Now


SpaceX mounted a Falcon 9 rocket on Pad 39A on Wednesday for the company’s final mission of the year. Credit: Spaceflight Now

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to land Thursday with a secret cargo from the Space Coast of Florida to the National Reconnaissance Office, which breaks out with standard practice for commercially launched procurements, outside the government’s established contract plans Gone.

The NRO, the owner of the US government spy satellite fleet, has not revealed any details about the payload of the launch on the Falcon 9 rocket. But an NRO spokesperson confirmed that the agency designated launch services for the mission as NOC-108 without undergoing the US Space Force’s National Security Space Launch Program.

A NRO spokesman said in written response to questions, “The NRO uses a variety of methods to procure launch services in support of the agency’s overhead reconnaissance mission, including the US Space Force under the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program Partnering with. ” From SpaceFlight Now.

“In some cases, NROs use alternative methods to obtain launch services after satellite risk tolerance, required launch dates, available launch capabilities and cumulative assessment of costs – all with the aim of ensuring that satellites are protected. To be delivered in the form and in the classroom. In a timely manner, ”the spokesperson said.

The mission is scheduled for liftoff from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center during the opening of a three-hour launch window at 9 am EST (1400 GMT) on Thursday. This will be SpaceX’s second dedicated launch for the National Reconnaissance Office, following the NOL-76 mission in 2017.

In another break from normal practice, SpaceX is set to launch the NROL-108 mission without test-firing the Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad. SpaceX recently discontinued customary test-firing for launches carrying the company’s own satellites.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket rolls out to pad 39A for the NOL-108 mission. Sincerely: SpaceX

The launch will mark NRO’s sixth launch on Thursday, including two payloads launched on Rocket Lab’s electron boosters from New Zealand, a mission aboard the Northrop Grumman Minotaur 4 rocket from Virginia, and two on the United Launch Atlas 5 and Delta 4- Missions are included. Heavy rockets in November and on 10 December.

The NRO purchased launch services from Rocket Lab through the Rapid Acquisition or RASR, a small rocket agency, intended to quickly procure rides for smaller NRO missions on new light-class commercial launchers. The Minotaur 4 mission was arranged through the Army’s Orbital / Suborbital Program-3 Procurement Vehicle, and ULA flights to the NRO were part of the Space Force’s NSSL program.

The National Security Space Launch Program is used for the government’s most important military and intelligence satellites.

NRO booked SpaceX for commercial launch NROL-108, reserving the flight on a SpaceX flight in the same way that a private satellite operator would buy a ride. This is usually lower than the US government launch contract, which comes with additional oversight and other additional costs.

SpaceX’s previous dedicated NRO mission – NROL-76 in 2017 – was also part of a systematic commercial launch service between Spy Satellite Agency and Ball Aerospace, a satellite manufacturer based in Boulder, Colorado. Ball Aerospace booked the launch with SpaceX on behalf of the NRO, and handed the classified payload to the NRO once it was safely in orbit.

The NRO spokesman said, “Nairo-108 is a national security payload designed, built and operated by the Office of National Security.” Additional details about the payload and its mission are preserved. The name / name of the contractor or contractors associated with the construction of this payload is also preserved. “

The NROL-108 mission did not appear on any public launch schedule until early October, when Spaceflight Now was to report the mission’s existence. At the time, the mission was scheduled for October 25, but the flight was delayed several times between changing the SpaceX launch schedule and other NRO launch activity at Cape Canaveral.

Mission patch for NROL-108 mission. “Gorillas are peaceful animals, but can be fierce when necessary. Like the Gorillas, our NOR-108 mission is constantly alert and ready to defend itself, demonstrating the NRO’s commitment to protecting American warriors, interests and allies. Credit: National Reconnaissance Office

The commercial nature of NRO’s launch contract with SpaceX provides oversight over missions to the Federal Aviation Administration, just as Falcon 9 was launching a privately owned payload.

The launch will mark the 38th FAA-licensed commercial space launch of the year by the US company, exceeding the previous mark of 33 such missions in 2018.

It is also the 26th of SpaceX and the last planned launch of 2020, which topped the company’s record of 21 missions in 2018.

“The future is no longer predictive, predictive and wishful thinking for this industry,” said Wayne Monteith, FAA Associate for Space Transportation. “It has demonstrated a quick rise. This is an increase in rhythm on steroids. “

“We have launched more commercial spaces in the last four years,” Monteith said in a virtual presentation on Tuesday at the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium 365 Forum. “In 2011, we had only one commercial space.”

“Next year, we should easily surpass 50 commercial launches, and may soon exceed 100,” Monteith said. “We see mega-constellations going up, and we see the beginning of an exceptionally strong space tourism sector. We take initiative for commercial off-world efforts. We see commercial companies that can return material from space. “

Retired General Monteith of the Air Force said government agencies could save money by purchasing space launch service on a commercial basis.

Monte said, “I believe the NRO now clearly sees that with use (commercial launch), where it makes sense, because not only does it have to unload resource requirements from a personnel standpoint, But also the cost. ” “By going into the commercial market, you can essentially take advantage of economies of scale and potentially lower class costs, and so, if you save your money, you can spend that money on your science Can roll over the part, which is your payload. With NASA, we are seeing the same thing. “

“The SpaceX launch on Thursday, which we have licensed, is carrying an NRO payload,” Monteith said. “So we are seeing this. It is intuitive, which is not always connected when talking about the United States government.”

The airspace warning notice associated with the NROL-108 launch would suggest the Falcon 9 rocket to fly northeast off the Florida coast. The rocket’s reusable first stage booster will shut down its nine kerosene-fueled Merlin engines and the T + Plus will come apart in 2 minutes, 18 seconds, then flip around to use a cold gas control thruster and cape. Start going back to Canaveral.

A boost-back burn using some of the rocket’s Merlin engines will begin directing the boosters back to the Space Coast of Florida, followed by an entry burn and a final landing burn using the first stage center engine.

Touchdown T + Plus at Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station is scheduled at 8 minutes, 15 seconds.

A mission timeline published by SpaceX shows that Falcon 9’s second stage T + Plus will ignite its single Merlin engine in 2 minutes, 30 seconds, followed by the rocket’s clamshell jettison to T + Plus in 2 minutes, 41 seconds. Like payload shroud. Once Falcon 9 reaches space, the nasal shroud will fall away, revealing the mission’s classified cargo above the condensed lower layers of the atmosphere.

At NRO’s request, SpaceX’s webcast of Thursday’s mission is expected to conclude coverage of the second-stage climb with the spy agency’s top-secret payload shortly after payload fairing segregation. The company’s live video stream will continue to track the return of boosters for Cape Canaveral.

The Falcon 9 booster set to launch on Thursday – number B1059 – completed four trips in space and two Dragon cargo flights back to the International Space Station, a mission to launch satellite for SpaceX’s Starlink Internet network , And the launch of SAOCOM 1B Earth Observation of Argentina. Satellite in August.

The purpose of NROL-108 is a mystery

Marco Langbrook, a Dutch archaeologist and an expert in satellite movements, said information from airspace warnings about the orbit targeted by the NOL-108 mission reveals some insight into the possible purpose of the payload.

According to Langbrook, the mission to re-enter the launch track towards the northeast and the upper stage of Falcon 9 above the Pacific Ocean would have placed its cargo in an orbit tilted at the equator around 52 degrees.

The Falcon 9 will reserve enough propellant in its first phase to return to a landing at Cape Canaveral, rather than aiming for an offshore landing on a SpaceX droneship. This indicates that the mission is likely to have a relatively low orbit a few hundred miles above Earth, Langbrook wrote on its website, similar but not identical to the OR-76 mission’s orbit in 2017.

The orbit expected for the NOR-108 mission does not match the signal fleet of NRO optical, radar, and signal intelligence satellites, expert analysts said.

A group of lobbyist satellite trackers will attempt to locate the NROL-108 payload after launch. The military does not release orbital data on US national security satellites.

Langbrook wrote, “It will be interesting to see which class the NROL-108 will finish.” “As I have commented earlier this year with some launches, the latest NRO launches all seem to be ‘new’ type payloads that are potential experimental / mission performers, and that go into ‘new’ type classes.” “

“The mission’s character is a mystery: it feels like something new again,” he wrote.

Canadian satellite observer Ted Mollican said Langbrook’s orbit estimates suggest the NOL-108 payload would repeat ground coverage every three days.

“Ground tracks that repeat at intervals of two to four days are a common feature of NRO satellites,” Molkijn told SpaceFlight Now. “They are able to hit targets faster, which is useful for reconnaissance,” he said.

Molkissen cautioned that although observers and analysts can extract information about NRO satellites through orbital information, optical characteristics, and radio transmissions, the exact mission remains secret.

“However, much can be deduced through analysis of orbits, optical characteristics and radio transmissions
The mission can remain secret until someone with inside information leaks it to the news media, ”said Molkiran.

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Follow Stephen Clarke on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.

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