SpaceX threw a secret cargo into space on Saturday for the US government spy satellite agency, the 30th rocket launch to fly from pad to Earth orbit on Florida’s Space Coast in 2020. The Falcon 9 flight broke an annual record for missions to reach orbit from Florida. spaceport which stood for 54 years.
It was the 31st major rocket launch from the Space Coast in Florida this year, which included a high-altitude demonstration of SpaceX’s Crew Drott Abort System in January.
SpaceX launched 25 from Florida this year – with 24 orbital missions – and the United Launch Alliance flew six times with its Atlas 5 and Delta 4-heavy rocket families.
Prior to 2020, the previous record to launch from Space Coast reaching Orbit was 29, set in 1966. There were 31 orbital launch efforts from Cape Canaveral that year, along with two suborbital test flights of the Apollo-era Saturn 1B launcher. A total of 33 spacecraft launched from Florida in 1966, according to the launch log created by Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics that tracks global satellite and launch activity.
To break that record would be to wait another year for a run.
SpaceX’s second mission dedicated to the national mission – and the company’s 26th and final flight of the year – flew at 9 am EST (1400 GMT) on Saturday.
A 229-foot-long or 70-meter-long, Falcon 9 rocket delivered the classified payload for an eight-minute ride to orbit from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Nine Merlin 1D engines flashed to life and powered a 1.2 million-pound launcher from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, driving Falcon 9 through clouds scattered northeast from Florida’s Space Coast.
The kerosene-filled launcher shut down its first-stage engines for about two-and-a-half minutes into flight, leaving the boosters and maneuvering the “boostback” while ruling some of its engines.
The boosters reversed course and formed a supersonic descent at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, where the rocket settled into an on-target touchdown at Landing Zone 1, more than eight minutes after takeoff.
The reusable booster, designated B1059, completed its fifth voyage to space and back. It was the 70th time that SpaceX successfully recovered a Falcon booster five years ago on December 21, 2015, after thwarting the first intact landing.
The exact purpose of the NRO payload Saturday mission, named NROL-108, was kept a secret by the government spy satellite agency. The live webcast of the SpaceX launch focused on the return of the first stage to Cape Canaveral, and the live video from the upper stage ended at the request of the NRO.
The NRO announced a breakthrough at a launch several hours after liftoff, wrapping up the sixth launch of the year for the intelligence-gathering agency.
This was the 26th Falcon 9 launch by SpaceX alone this year, including 25 flights from Florida and one from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. SpaceX had a previous record for most Falcon launches in a year in 2018.
“NORL-108 carries a national security payload, designed, built and operated by the National Reconnaissance Office,” an NRO spokesman said in response to SpaceFlight Now’s questions. Additional details about the payload and its mission are preserved. The names or names of contractors or contractors associated with the construction of this payload are 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 NRO launch activity at Cape Canaveral.
SpaceX on Thursday began an initial launch effort for the NORL-108 mission to evaluate slightly higher pressure readings inside the Falcon 9 rocket’s upper-stage liquid oxygen tank. The crew on pad 39A lowered the rocket horizontally for inspection before lifting the vertical again late on Friday.
The NRO broke with the standard practice for commercially launched procurements, outside the government’s established contracting schemes.
An NRO spokesman confirmed that the agency procured launch services for the NROL-108 at its own location, which was not through the US Space Army’s National Security Space Launch Program.
A NRO spokesman said, “The NRO uses a range of methods to procure launch services in support of the agency’s overhead reconnaissance mission, including partnering with the US Space Force under the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program Is included. “
“In some cases, NRO uses alternative methods for procurement of launch services after performing a cumulative assessment of satellite risk tolerance, required launch dates, available launch capabilities, and costs – all satellites aimed at ensuring that they are safely and Are delivered in the classroom. A timely manner, “the spokesperson said.
The National Security Space Launch Program is used for the government’s most important military and intelligence satellites.
NRO booked SpaceX for commercial launch of the NROL-108, reserving the flight when SpaceX appeared, just as 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 commercial nature of NRO’s launch contract with SpaceX gave Federal Aviation Administration regulatory supervision over the mission, such as Falcon 9 launching a privately owned payload.
The launch was the 38th FA-licensed commercial space launch of the year by the US company, surpassing the previous mark of 33 such missions in 2018. That number includes space launches from other US spaceships, and flights by US-headquartered Rockstone Lab. Privately owned base in New Zealand.
“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 potentially more than 100 shortly thereafter,” said Monith. “We see mega-constellations going up, and we see the beginning of an exceptionally strong tourism sector. We take initiative for commercial off-world efforts. We see commercial companies that can return material from space. “
SpaceX will begin its 2021 launch mission in early January, when the Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to send a communications 5A satellite into orbit 5 from Pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Another Falcon 9 launch from Florida in mid-January would lose dozens of small satellites to commercial ride missions for many US and international customers.
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 expected to place its cargo in an orbit tilted at 52 degrees equator to re-enter the location of the Falcon 9’s upper stage above the launch track and over the Pacific Ocean.
The Falcon 9 reserved enough propellant in its first leg to land at Cape Canaveral rather than aiming for offshore landings on the SpaceX droneship. Indicated that the mission is probably intended for a relatively low orbit a few hundred miles from 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 character of the mission is a mystery: it reemerges to do something new,” he wrote.
– Dr. Marco Langbrook (@Marco_Langbroek) 15 December 2020
Canadian satellite observer Ted Molikan said that Langbrook’s orbit estimates suggest that the NOL-108 payload would repeat ground coverage every three days or so.
“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.
Molkisson cautioned that although observers and analysts may reduce information about NRO satellites through orbital information, optical characteristics, and radio transmissions, the exact mission remains secret.
“Although much can be deduced through analysis of orbits, optical characteristics, and radio transmissions, the exact mission can remain secret until an insider’s knowledge leaks it into media outlets,” Molken said.
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