SpaceX ready to launch its first dedicated NRO mission
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Two days before SpaceX is scheduled to launch its first dedicated National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) mission, all appears to be go for NROL-76. The Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch sometime between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. EDT (11:00 and 13:00 GMT) April 30, 2017.
Just three days ago, on April 25, SpaceX completed a successful hotfire test of its Falcon 9 rocket’s nine Merlin 1D engines at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. The test is done to ensure all is well with the vehicle in advance of the mission.
The 45th Weather Squadron released its L-2 weather report on April 28, which predicts a 20 percent chance of unfavorable conditions during the April 30 launch window. The primary concerns are high winds at liftoff and cumulus clouds.
While SpaceX has a two-hour window to send the payload spaceward, neither the company nor the NRO has disclosed the exact launch time. Should a 24-hour delay occur, the weather for May 1 is expected to be slightly worse with a 30 percent chance of unfavorable conditions. The primary concerns on that day will be high winds at liftoff and thick clouds.
As usual with most NRO intelligence-gathering flights, the details of the payload are classified. This includes the size of the vehicle, its instruments, and the final orbit.
A 2016 SpaceNews story typifies the information blackout situation, as it noted that “further details about the launch, including which rocket SpaceX would use to lift the satellite, the cost of the launch, or whether the mission was competitively bid were not immediately available”.
The Falcon 9 can boost a payload up to 50,265 pounds (22,800 kilograms) to low-Earth orbit and up to 18,300 pounds (8,300 kilograms) to geostationary transfer orbit in a fully expendable mode. However, SpaceX plans to recover the first stage back at Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1), several miles south of Kennedy Space Center. This means the payload is significantly lighter in order to give the company the margin to be able to recover the booster back on land rather than on a drone ship or not at all.
SpaceX will provide a live webcast of the launch as well as the planned landing at LZ-1 some nine minutes later. However, coverage of the second stage’s flight into orbit will not be broadcast. It is expected that the feed, like all other NRO flights, will cut off just before the payload fairing is jettisoned, which will occur at about 2 minutes, 48 seconds after liftoff.
NROL-76 was announced as awarded to SpaceX back in mid-2016 as a sole-source contract. The company hopes to compete with ULA for future NRO launches.
This flight will be the fifth Falcon 9 mission in 2017 and the 33rd since its first launch in 2010. If the landing of the first stage, known as core No. 1032, is successful, it will mark the fourth ground landing performed by the vehicle and the 10th successful landing to date, including the sixth drone ship landings (five in the Atlantic Ocean and one in the Pacific Ocean).
Since the first successful landing in December 2015, SpaceX has failed to bring back a planned recoverable stage only three times. Since then, it has reused one: the SES-10 mission on March 30, 2017. The company plans to refly several more boosters later this year, including two on the maiden launch of the triple-core Falcon Heavy.
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.