A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will take off from Florida’s Space Coast on Thursday with a secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, which broke from standard practice of obtaining the launch commercially, outside of government-established contract arrangements.
The NRO, which owns the US government’s spy satellite fleet, has not disclosed details of the payload awaiting the launch of the Falcon 9 missile. But an NRO spokesperson confirmed that the agency had procured launch services for the mission, dubbed NROL-108, on its own without going through the US Space Force’s National Security Space Launch program.
“The NRO is using a variety of methods to procure launch services in support of the agency’s surface reconnaissance mission, including a partnership with US Space Force under the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program,” a spokesman for the NRO said in a written statement. response to questions. from Spaceflight Now.
“In some cases, the NRO uses alternative methods of purchasing launch services after having made a cumulative assessment of satellite risk tolerance, launch data required, available launch capabilities and cost – all to ensure that satellites are safe and secure in time, Said the spokesman.
The mission is scheduled to launch from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center during a three-hour launch window that opens Thursday at 9 a.m. EST (1400 GMT). It will be SpaceX’s second special launch for the National Reconnaissance Office, following the NROL-76 mission in 2017.
In another break from normal practice, SpaceX is ready to launch the NROL-108 mission without a test fire from the Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad. SpaceX recently skipped the usual test firing for launches with the company’s own satellites.
Launch Thursday marks the NRO’s sixth launch in 2020, including two payloads launched on Rocket Lab’s Electron booster from New Zealand, a mission on a Northrop Grumman Minotaur 4 missile from Virginia and two missions on United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 and Delta 4- Heavy Missiles in November and December 10th.
The NRO purchased launch services from Rocket Lab through the agency’s Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket or RASR contract, aimed at rapidly procuring rides for small NRO missions on new light class commercial launchers. The Minotaur 4 mission was organized through the Army’s Orbital / Suborbital Program-3 procurement vehicle, and the ULA flights for the NRO were part of the Space Force’s NSSL program.
The National Security Space Launch program is used for the government’s most critical military and intelligence satellites.
The NRO booked SpaceX for the launch of the NROL-108 on a commercial basis and reserved the flight on SpaceX’s manifest, similar to the way a private satellite operator would purchase a ride. That usually costs less than a US government launch contract, which comes with additional oversight and other additional costs.
SpaceX’s previous special NRO mission – NROL-76 in 2017 – was also part of a commercial launch service organized between the 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 cargo to the NRO after it was safely in orbit.
“The NROL-108 has a national security payload designed, built and operated by the National Reconnaissance Office,” said the NRO spokesman. “Additional details about the cargo and its mission are protected. The name or names of the contractor or contractors involved in building this cargo is / are also protected. “
The NROL-108 mission did not appear on public launch schedules until early October, when Spaceflight Now was the first to report the mission’s existence. At the time, the mission was scheduled for October 25, but the flight was delayed several times due to changing SpaceX launch schedules and other NRO launch activities at Cape Canaveral.
The commercial nature of the NRO’s launch contract with SpaceX gives the Federal Aviation Administration regulatory oversight of the mission, just as if the Falcon 9 were launching a private payload.
The launch marks the 38th FAA-licensed commercial space launch of the year by a US company, surpassing the previous figure of 33 such missions in 2018.
It is also SpaceX’s 26th and final scheduled launch of 2020, surpassing the record of 21 missions in 2018.
“The future for this industry is no longer conjecture, forecasting, and wishful thinking,” said Wayne Monteith, the FAA’s associate administrator for space transportation. “Accelerated growth has been demonstrated. It’s an increase in the cadence in steroids. “
“We’ve launched more commercial space in the last four years than in the last 15 years combined,” Monteith said in a virtual presentation at the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium 365 forum on Tuesday. “In 2011 we only had one commercial space launch.”
“We should easily surpass 50 commercial launches by next year, and possibly more than 100 soon after,” said Monteith. “We’re seeing mega-constellations rising and we’re seeing the dawn of an exceptionally robust space tourism industry. We see initiatives for commercial off-world endeavors. We see commercial companies that can return material from space. “
Monteith, a retired Air Force general, said government agencies can save money by purchasing a space launch service on a commercial basis.
“I believe the NRO now sees that clearly when using (commercial launches) where it makes sense because it takes away not only the resources needed for them from a staffing perspective, but also the costs,” said Monteith. “By going into the commercial market, you can essentially exploit economies of scale and potentially get lower costs for orbit, and therefore if you store your money there, you can roll that money into your science part, which is your payload. . We see the same with NASA. “
“The SpaceX launch on Thursday, for which we have a license, has an NRO payload,” said Monteith. So we see this. It makes intuitive sense, which is not always associated when talking about the United States government. “
Airspace warnings related to the launch of the NROL-108 suggest the Falcon 9 missile will fly northeast from the Florida coast. The rocket’s reusable booster will shut down and separate the nine kerosene Merlin engines on T + plus 2 minutes 18 seconds, then use the cold gas thrusters to spin around and head back to Cape Canaveral .
A boost-back combustion using some of the rocket’s Merlin engines will direct the booster back to Florida’s Space Coast, followed by an entry-level combustion and a final landing fire using the middle engine of the first stage.
Landing at Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station is scheduled for T + plus 8 minutes 15 seconds.
A mission timeline published by SpaceX shows that the Falcon 9’s second stage will ignite its single Merlin engine at T + plus 2 minutes and 30 seconds, followed by jettisoning the rocket’s clamshell-like cargo shroud on T + plus 2 minutes and 41 seconds. The nose mantle will drop once the Falcon 9 reaches space, revealing the mission’s classified payload after climbing above the dense, lower layers of the atmosphere.
At the request of the NRO, SpaceX’s webcast of Thursday’s mission is expected to end coverage of the second stage ascent into orbit with the spy agency’s top secret payload shortly after the charging fairing separation. The company’s live video stream will continue to follow the booster’s return to Cape Canaveral.
The Falcon 9 booster launching Thursday – number B1059 – has completed four voyages to space and back on two Dragon cargo flights to the International Space Station, a mission to launch satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink internet network and the launch of the Argentinian SAOCOM 1B Earth Observation. satellite in August.
The purpose of NROL-108 remains a mystery
Marco Langbroek, a Dutch archaeologist and an expert in satellite movements, said that information gathered from airspace warnings about the orbit the NROL-108 mission is targeting reveals little insight into the likely target of the payload.
The launch path toward the northeast and the location of the Falcon 9’s upper stage return over the Pacific Ocean suggest the mission will place its payload in an orbit about 52 degrees from the equator, Langbroek said. .
The Falcon 9 will reserve enough propellant in phase one to return to a landing at Cape Canaveral, rather than aiming for an offshore landing on a SpaceX droneship. That indicates the mission is likely aiming for a relatively low orbit a few hundred kilometers above Earth, Langbroek wrote on his website, similar but not identical to the orbit of the NROL-76 mission in 2017.
The expected orbit for the NROL-108 mission does not match the NRO’s known fleet of optical, radar and signals intelligence satellites, expert analysts said.
A group of hobbyist satellite trackers will attempt to locate the NROL-108 payload after launch. The military does not release orbital data on US national security satellites.
“It will be interesting to see in which orbit NROL-108 will end,” Langbroek wrote. “As I noted at some of the launches earlier this year, the latest NRO launches all seem to be ‘new’ kinds of payloads that are likely to be experimental / mission demonstrators and going into ‘new’ kinds of orbits.”
“The nature of the mission is a mystery: this seems to be something new again,” he wrote.
– Dr Marco Langbroek (@Marco_Langbroek) December 15, 2020
Ted Molczan, a Canadian satellite observer, said the estimate of Langbroek’s orbit suggests that the NROL-108 payload will repeat ground coverage approximately every three days.
“Ground tracks that repeat at intervals of two to four days are a common feature of NRO satellites,” Molczan told Spaceflight Now. “They allow for quick revisits of targets, which is useful for exploration.
Molczan warned that while observers and analysts can infer information about NRO satellites through orbital information, optical features and radio transmissions, the exact mission may remain a secret.
“Although much can be deduced by analysis of trajectories, optical features and radio transmissions, exactly
mission can remain classified until someone with insider information leaks it to the news media, ”said Molczan.
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