Spaceflight Insider

Photo Gallery: SpaceX launches classified NROL-76 payload

SpaceX launches its 33rd Falcon 9 since 2010. This was the NewSpace firm's first dedicated launch for the National Reconnaissance Office. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

SpaceX launches its 33rd Falcon 9 since 2010. This was the NewSpace firm’s first dedicated launch for the National Reconnaissance Office. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. — SpaceX sent its first dedicated payload for the National Reconnaissance Office into space May 1, 2017. While the nature of the payload was classified, the launch itself provided some of the clearest views of a returning Falcon 9 first stage yet.

Liftoff took place at 7:15 a.m. EDT (11:15 GMT) from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A just after local sunrise. SpaceX provided coverage of the Falcon 9’s launch all the way to stage separation. After that, coverage of the second stage ceased and the focus shifted on the returning first stage.

Once the two stages separated, the first stage, known as core 1032, immediately turned around 180 degrees. Three of the nine Merlin 1D engines that helped power the stack uphill then reignited and performed a “boostback” burn.

SpaceX lands another Falcon 9


Nulling out its eastward velocity, the stage began thrusting back toward Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1. A few minutes later, a three-engine entry burn took place to ease the booster back into the atmosphere. Once complete, it coasted to about 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the ground. At this point the vehicle had slowed to about 750 mph (about 1,200 kph) from a combination of the entry burn and atmospheric effects.

About 30 seconds from landing, the center Merlin 1D engine ignited and took the spacecraft from its current velocity all the way to a speed and altitude of zero, successfully landing on the concrete pad in Florida. This was the fourth successful ground landing and 10th successful to date. Moreover, NROL-76 was the 33rd successful Falcon 9 flight and the fifth launch this year – the fourth to take place from Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceFlight Insider’s visual team was there to capture the Falcon 9’s launch and landing in nearly perfect photography conditions.

NROL-76On May 1, 2017 Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) carried out the first launch for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). More precisely, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The NROL-76 mission got its start from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A with the Full Thrust Falcon 9 rocket lifting off from the same launch pad that saw astronauts depart for the Moon. The NewSpace company had a two hour window in which to get the satellite off of the pad and into the skies above Florida. The flight had been scheduled for April 30, however, an issue with a sensor on the rocket caused a hold that pushed the launch back 24 hours.

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