The NROL-123 mission launched March 21, 2024, on a Rocket Lab Electron Rocket for the National Reconnaissance Office. The NRO said the mission was for technology demonstrations Credit: NRO

WASHINGTON — The National Reconnaissance Office is preparing to launch the first phase of its new imaging satellite constellation built by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman. 

The agency is targeting a May 19 launch for the mission designated NROL-146 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, Troy Meink, the NRO’s principal deputy director, said May 1.

Speaking at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces, Meink said this will be the first operational launch of the NRO’s new proliferated architecture.

“We have already launched a number of demonstrations over the last few years to verify cost and performance to make sure we’re really comfortable and we know what we’re doing,” Meink said. 

The agency has not disclosed how many satellites will launch on this upcoming mission or the projected size of the new constellation. Meink previously said six launches are projected in 2024 for the NRO’s future proliferated architecture of small satellites.

NRO to ‘quadruple’ its satellites in orbit

Agency officials said the NRO aims to quadruple the number of spacecraft in orbit. This expansion, coupled with the new technology aboard the satellites, is expected to deliver a ten-fold increase in intelligence gathering for the agency. Smaller, more numerous satellites will allow for far more frequent revisits of critical areas of interest, leading to faster delivery of crucial intelligence. 

“Space based intelligence has become a primary, if not the primary, means of collection in denied areas,” Meink said at the hearing. 

The satellites were built under a classified $1.8 billion contract awarded by the NRO in 2021 to SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, a contract first reported by Reuters in March. 

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...