SpaceX launches first spy satellite after 24-hour hold

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WASHINGTON – SpaceX launched its first spy satellite Monday, after a 24-hour hold to check out a sensor on the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket.

The rocket lifted off at 7:15 am Eastern, aboard a Falcon 9 that took off from the company’s Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Nine minutes later, the Falcon 9 reusable first stage touched down at Landing Zone 1 at neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It’s the fourth time the company has recovered a first stage booster after launch.

The launch was originally scheduled for 7:15 am Sunday, but was delayed by a day after officials became concerned about a sensor on the first-stage of the rocket. SpaceX said that the sensor readings “were out of tolerance,” which delayed the launch.

NROL-76 mission patch. Credit: NRO
NROL-76 mission patch. Credit: NRO

 The payload – dubbed NROL-76 – is a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office, and SpaceX’s first national security mission since successfully launching and landing a previously flown Falcon 9 booster March 30 on a mission for commercial satellite fleet operator SES.

SpaceX stopped the live broadcast of the launch shortly after fairing separation, standard practice for the launch of classified payloads like NROL-76. The NRO does not disclose the orbital regimes of its satellites or say when they become operational.

However, the NRO did post on Twitter Monday afternoon, congratulating all involved on a “successful launch,” likely indicating that no major problems with the satellite have occurred.

Elon Musk’s company only received government certification to launch national security payloads in 2015. The U.S. government has yet to approve SpaceX’s re-used rocket boosters for national security launches.

Although information on NROL-76 is classified, it is unlikely SpaceX had certification at the time the satellite was ordered.

Amateur satellite sleuths speculate that the SpaceX launch was bought as part of delivery-on-orbit package deal with Boeing for the BSS-702SP satellite platform they believe was used to build NROL-76. 

SpaceX's mission patch for the Falcon 9 NROL-76 launch. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX’s mission patch for the Falcon 9 NROL-76 launch. Credit: SpaceX

Loretta DeSio, NRO spokeswoman, confirmed to SpaceNews that the government agency did not directly select SpaceX as the launch provider.

“NROL-76 is a commercial launch,” she said in a statement. “Ball Aerospace, the Launch Services Integration Contractor (LSIC), selected SpaceX to launch NROL-76 after a competition. There is no contractual relationship between the NRO and SpaceX [for this launch].”

But the launch of NROL-76 is a big first step towards SpaceX competing with United Launch Alliance for a greater share of government launches.

More NRO launches for SpaceX are likely in the pipeline. In 2016, NRO Director Betty Sapp said that her agency had “bought launches from SpaceX,” implying at least two NRO launches for SpaceX.

Likewise, DeSio said in a May 2016 e-mail sent to SpaceNews that “the NRO is anticipating the possibility of SpaceX supporting additional missions based on future competitions.”