NRO space missions mark new level of US-Australia cooperation

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NROL-162 and NROL-199 carry spy satellites built and operated jointly by the U.S. and Australia

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab on July 13 launched the NROL-162 mission for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office from the company’s launch complex in New Zealand.  NROL-162 is the first of two NRO missions the agency developed in partnership with the Australian Department of Defence.

The second one, NROL-199, is planned for July 22. Both missions are classified spy satellites that the U.S. intelligence agency developed jointly with the Australian government.

“The NRO works with allies and partners to identify and advance common goals,” said NRO Director Chris Scolese.

The payloads on NROL-162 and NROL-199 were “designed, built, and operated by the National Reconnaissance Office in partnership with the Australian Department of Defence as part of a broad range of cooperative satellite activities with Australia,” an NRO spokesperson said. 

Australia’s defense minister Peter Dutton in a speech in March announced the establishment of the Australian Space Command with a goal of expanding the country’s space activities and joint investments with the United States.

Importantly, Australia and the United States are strengthening our alliance to support our mutual objectives in the space domain,” Dutton said. “The Australian Department of Defence and the National Reconnaissance Office have committed to a broad range of cooperative satellite activities which will expand Australia’s space knowledge and capabilities.”

The partnership with Australia is part of a broader effort by the National Reconnaissance Office to have a more integrated space architecture to support U.S. and allies’ surveillance needs. The NRO recently announced a similar partnership with the United Kingdom.

The NRO said this collaboration will deliver “meaningful contributions to the NRO’s enduring pursuit of a more capable, integrated, and resilient space architecture designed to provide global coverage in support of a wide range of intelligence mission requirements.” The NROL-162 and 199 missions are the “latest examples of NRO’s commitment to enhancing relationships with U.S. allies and partners.”

The NRO worked with New Zealand Space Agency, which licensed the launch.

For Rocket Lab, the NRO’s twin missions will be an opportunity to demonstrate its “responsive space launchservice, advertised as a “24/7 rapid call-up launch capability and streamlined satellite build and operation options.”

NROL-162 and 199 are the third and fourth missions awarded to Rocket Lab by the NRO under the Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract.  The company launched RASR-1 and RASR-2 in 2020.