WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on May 22 launched an undisclosed number of small spacecraft into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, at 4:00 a.m. Eastern.

The classified mission, designated NROL-146, was SpaceX’s 52nd launch of the year and the Falcon 9’s fifth launch for the NRO.

After separation from the upper stage, the rocket’s first stage, which flew its 16th mission, landed on a drone ship stationed in the Pacific Ocean.

At the request of the NRO, SpaceX did not show images of the rocket’s upper stage and ended the webcast after the first stage landed, marking the company’s 310th recovery of a first-stage booster.

The NRO designs and operates classified U.S. government surveillance and intelligence satellites. NROL-146 is the agency’s first deployment of a new imaging satellite constellation built by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman.

The NRO has not disclosed how many satellites were launched on this mission or the projected size of the new constellation. Agency officials previously said six launches are planned in 2024 for the NRO’s proliferated architecture of small satellites.

The NRO said it aims to quadruple the number of spacecraft in orbit. Officials said smaller, more numerous satellites will allow for far more frequent revisits of critical areas of interest, leading to faster delivery of crucial intelligence. 

“This mission is the first launch of the NRO’s proliferated systems featuring responsive collection and rapid data delivery,” the NRO said in a statement. “NROL-146 represents the first launch of an operational system following demonstrations in recent years to verify cost and performance.”

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...