July 15, 2024
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Space

SpaceX launches multiple satellites for NRO from Vandenberg Space Force Base – Spaceflight Now

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Vandenberg Space Force Base on the NROL-186 mission on June 28, 2024. Image: SpaceX

SpaceX launched a national security mission on behalf of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) from Vandenberg Space Force Base on Friday evening. The spy agency described the classified mission as “the second launch of the NRO’s proliferated architecture, which provides critical space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) services to the nation.”

The Falcon 9 rocket supporting this mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) at the start of a two-hour window, at 8:14 p.m. PDT (11:14 p.m. EDT, 0314 UTC).

The first-stage Falcon 9 rocket supporting this mission, tail number B1081 in SpaceX's fleet, launched for the eighth time. Its previous missions included launches of the Crew-7 astronaut mission to the International Space Station, two climate monitoring satellites (NASA's PACE and the European Space Agency's EarthCARE), and two Starlink flights.

Just over eight minutes after liftoff, B1081 landed on the unmanned spacecraft 'Of Course I Still Love You'. This was OCISLY's 95th landing and its 326th to date.

Architecture proliferates

This mission was the second launch of the NRO's so-called “proliferating architecture,” following the launch of the NROL-146 mission in May. A Reuters report from earlier this year suggested that these satellites are based on the Starshield satellite bus built by SpaceX in partnership with Northrop Grumman.

In a statement to Spaceflight Now, the NRO said:

“NRO systems are designed, built and operated by the NRO. As a matter of national security, we do not discuss the companies associated with the construction of our systems, our contractual relationships with them, their specific activities, or the locations where NRO systems are built.”

The agency also declined to confirm how many satellites are involved in these missions, as well as their orbit. In a speech given before this year's Space Symposium in Colorado, Dr. Troy Meink, principal deputy director of the NRO, said there will be “about a half dozen of these launches” this year.

These missions were not acquired as part of the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 task order. This is because the NRO needed these missions to advance before the Phase 3 task order missions were assigned.

“The NRO is associated with the USSF Space Systems Command's Assured Space Access Team on the Phase 3 acquisition and influenced the development of Phase 3, Track 1, as a means to acquire flexible launch solutions with adaptive mission assurance,” an NRO spokesperson said. in a sentence. “When considering our launch cadence and the need for adaptive mission assurance, the NRO recognized that we needed a bridge between Phase 2 and Phase 3 – Track 1. This resulted in some missions being acquired outside of NSSL. “NSSL has been and will continue to be the NRO’s primary mechanism for procuring launch services.”

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