SpaceX ventures ‘into the black’ with classified NROL-76 mission
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — While most of the details of the National Reconnaissance Office’s NROL-76 payload are a mystery, it’s still hard to hide a rocket launch taking to the skies off the coast of Florida.
Ascending on a pillar of fire and smoke, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 successfully launched its first dedicated intelligence payload for the U.S. government at 7:15 a.m. EDT (11:15 GMT) May 1, 2017.
This was the NewSpace company’s second attempt to launch the Falcon 9 as the first attempt on April 30 was scrubbed within 52 seconds of the planned liftoff due to a sensor error with the rocket’s first stage.
For the second attempt, the 45th Weather Squadron predicted the weather to have a 30 percent chance of unfavorable conditions at the time of liftoff with the primary concerns being high winds and thick clouds.
During the countdown, launch teams watched upper-level winds as they were trending high. However, as the time ticked toward liftoff, the winds stayed within acceptable margins – albeit barely.
According to Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, high-altitude wind shear was at 98.6 percent of the theoretical load limit.
Liftoff of the Falcon 9 with NROL-76
A little after sunrise, the Falcon 9 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A and out over the Atlantic Ocean.
The nine-Merlin 1D-engine first stage crackled and soared over Cape Canaveral toward the blackness of space. About 1 minute, 8 seconds after liftoff, the vehicle reached the moment of peak mechanical stress due to its speed and the thickness of the atmosphere: Max Q.
Continuing to burn for 2 minutes, 17 seconds, the stage propelled itself faster and faster downrange before the engines cut off as planned. Three seconds later, the first and second stages separated.
At 2 minutes, 28 seconds, the second stage, utilizing a single Merlin 1D Vacuum engine, started and continued pushing the NROL-76 payload toward space.
Just 20 seconds later, when the payload fairing deployed, SpaceX ended the coverage of the ascent, per a request from the NRO customer, to prevent public disclosure of the NROL-76’s final intended orbit.
The Falcon has landed
However, the company continued to broadcast the flight of the first stage as it made its way back to Cape Canaveral for a successful landing at Landing Zone 1 (formerly Space Launch Complex 13).
This was the fourth ground landing performed by a Falcon 9 and the 10th successful landing to date. The other six have landed downrange on a drone ship. Since the first landing in December 2015, SpaceX has failed to bring back a planned recoverable stage only three times. Since then, it has even reused one: the SES-10 mission on March 30, 2017.
The company plans to re-fly several more boosters later this year, including two on the maiden launch of the triple-core Falcon Heavy.
NROL-76 was the 33rd successful Falcon 9 flight and the fifth launch this year – the fourth to take place from Kennedy Space Center.
This classified mission 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.
Ramping up operations
In January 2017, SpaceX leapt out of the ashes of the Sept. 1, 2016, Amos-6 accident, which saw the $195 million Israeli satellite and Falcon 9 rocket incinerated. Space Launch Complex 40 where that mission was located was also heavily damaged.
Since then, SpaceX has moved its Florida operations, albeit, in part, temporarily, to KSC’s Launch Complex 39A.
SpaceX’s inaugural launch from the historic site was the Feb. 19, 2017, flight of the CRS-10 Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station. The company followed this success less than a month later with the March 14 launch of the Echostar 23 satellite from LC-39A. A little more than two weeks after that, on March 30, SpaceX sent the SES-10 communications satellite to orbit from the same site.
SpaceX hopes to launch as many as 15 more missions before the end of the year. This includes two flights of the yet-to-be-launched Heavy variant of the Falcon launch system.
Video courtesy of SpaceX
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.