US intelligence collection payloads awaiting launch on SpaceX rocket – Spaceflight Now

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sits horizontal Thursday at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Credit: Brian Sandoval/Spaceflight Now

SpaceX plans to launch a Falcon 9 rocket from the central California coast just after sunrise Friday, blasting classified cargo into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office in what is widely believed to be a naval reconnaissance mission .

The Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to lift off from Vandenberg Space Force Base, a military base on the Pacific coast northwest of Los Angeles, at 6:41 a.m. PDT (9:41 a.m. EDT; 1341 GMT) on Friday.

The National Reconnaissance Office did not release details of the mission, codenamed NROL-85. With rare exceptions, the NRO generally keeps the details of its launches secret. The agency owns the US government’s fleet of intelligence-gathering spy satellites, providing optical and radar surveillance imagery, eavesdropping capabilities, and data relay support.

“While we are unable to discuss the details of this launch, we can confirm that we will have more than half a dozen launches planned and a dozen payloads planned for orbit in 2022,” said Nathan Potter, NRO spokesperson. “We can also confirm that NRO is the only organization launched on the NROL-85 mission, and that there is no carpooling.”

The NRO also develops and launches satellites to locate and track ship movements. There is broad consensus among independent analysts that the NROL-85 mission will add two new spacecraft to the US government’s fleet of naval reconnaissance satellites.

Ted Molczan, an expert military satellite tracker, told Spaceflight Now he’s “100%” sure the payloads from the NROL-85 mission launched on Friday are the next pair of ship-locating class spacecraft. Intrude.

The circumstances of the NROL-85 mission – its target altitude, inclination and launch time – all indicate that the Falcon 9 rocket will carry the next pair of Intruder naval reconnaissance satellites, experts have said. Intruder spacecraft are sometimes referred to as Naval Ocean Surveillance System satellites, or NOSS.

The U.S. military, which oversees launch procurement for NRO missions, awarded SpaceX a contract to launch NROL-85 in 2019. In military procurement documents, officials revealed that 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.

These orbital parameters correspond to the known altitude and inclination of previous Intruder satellites. Air and sea space warnings associated with the Falcon 9 launch on Friday confirm that the rocket will follow a trajectory southeast of Vandenberg, aligning with the planned 63.5-degree inclination target orbit .

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket stands vertically on Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg Space Force Base. The rocket was lowered horizontally on Thursday afternoon for troubleshooting. Credit: SpaceX

The NROL-85 mission “almost certainly” carries the next pair of Intruder, or NOSS, satellites into orbit, according to Marco Langbroek, a Dutch archaeologist and satellite movement expert.

Intruder satellites collect data used by the US 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.”

Additionally, Friday’s launch time closely matches the time when the orbital plane of an older pair of Intruder satellites passes over Vandenberg, suggesting that the two new spacecraft could be replacements. according to Langbroek.

Recent launches that lifted NRO naval surveillance satellites used the 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 that followed near Vandenberg around Friday’s launch were deployed by an Atlas 5 in 2012.

For Friday’s mission, SpaceX will use a Falcon 9 booster that flew its first mission Feb. 2 in a previous dedicated NRO launch.

SpaceX brought the reusable booster back to Vandenberg shortly after the Feb. 2 launch. Technicians refurbished the rocket – designated B1071 in SpaceX’s inventory – for its second flight on the NROL-85 mission about 10 weeks later.

After separating from the Falcon 9 upper stage, the rocket booster will once again return to Landing Zone 4, just a quarter mile west of the Falcon 9 launch pad, for a propelled landing about eight minutes after takeoff.

The upper stage will ignite its single engine nearly two and a half minutes into flight as the rocket heads southeast from Vandenberg over the Pacific Ocean. The second stage will guide the NROL-85 payloads into a preliminary orbit, then another upper-stage engine burn should inject the satellites into their targeted separation orbit.

The detailed Falcon 9 mission timeline has not been released by SpaceX, honoring a request by the NRO to keep this information secret. SpaceX’s live launch webcast will focus on the return of the first-stage booster to Earth, and upper-stage maneuvers will occur in a government-ordered blackout — standard operating procedure for the NRO .

The National Reconnaissance Office patch for the NROL-85 mission. The NRO states, “In the NROL-85 patch, three stars represent guidance, protection, and allegiance. The cat represents the loyalty and devotion shared between our nation and our partners. The tiger in the cat’s reflection demonstrates that while space can be difficult, a determined attitude helps NRO succeed in reaching beyond to meet the toughest challenges we face to protect our nation. Credit: National Recognition Office

The NROL-85 mission will mark SpaceX’s 14th Falcon 9 launch in 2022, and the third this year from Vandenberg Space Force Base. It will be the 148th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket since SpaceX launched the workhorse launch vehicle in June 2010.

SpaceX will follow the NRO mission with two more Falcon 9 launches from Florida next week. Another batch of Starlink internet satellites are scheduled to launch from Space Force Base Cape Canaveral on April 21, followed by an April 23 liftoff from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center with the next crew heading to the Space Station. international.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.


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