June 21, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA

SpaceX will launch the first batch of satellites for the NRO reconnaissance satellite constellation – Spaceflight Now

An illustration of the NROL-146 mission patch design. Chart: NRO

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is set to begin building a constellation of unknown size with a midnight launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The mission, called NROL-146, features an undisclosed number of satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Liftoff from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) is scheduled for the start of a launch window that opens at 1 a.m. PDT (4 a.m. EDT, 0800 UTC).

Spaceflight Now will have live coverage starting about 30 minutes before takeoff.

The Falcon 9 first stage booster supporting this mission, tail number B1071 in the SpaceX fleet, will launch for the 16th time. Its first two flights were for NRO missions and it also launched a couple of shared flights with Transporter.

Just over eight minutes after liftoff, B1071 will land on the SpaceX spacecraft, 'Of Course I Still Love You.' This will be the 91st recovery for OCISLY and the 310th boost landing to date for SpaceX.

Star Shield Takes Flight

While the details of the mission are largely secret, the payload on board is believed to be a batch of Starshield satellites. These are government-specific versions of SpaceX's Starlink satellites, which the company previously stated focus on three main areas:

  • earth observation
  • Communications
  • Hosted payloads

In the lead-up to the final launch of Delta 4 Heavy with the NROL-70 payload, Dr. Chris Scolese, director of the NRO, noted that the agency began launching prototypes for its constellation “about five years ago.”

“We recognized that we had challenges, as we've mentioned, with Russia and China trying to deny our ability to operate in space,” Scolese said in March. “So, that was one of the reasons. The other reason we needed it is that we recognized that we needed to have more persistent coverage of the Earth. So, we needed to proliferate.”

Scolese said that involved working with commercial suppliers to reduce the cost. He did not name Check SpaceX in his comments, but was responding to a question that referred to reports about Starshield from Reuters.

In April, Reuters was the first to report that Northrop Grumman was working with SpaceX to test some of the Starshield satellites, as well as to provide sensors for some of the spacecraft. The planned constellation will reportedly consist of “hundreds of satellites,” although a more specific number has not been reported.

The news service was also the first to report that SpaceX was used in 2021 to receive a previously undisclosed message. $1.8 billion contract for the new constellation of the NRO.

Dr. Troy Meink, principal deputy director of NRO, gave a keynote address at the 39th Space Symposium in Colorado. Image: NRO

During his remarks at the 2024 Space Symposium in Colorado, Dr. Troy Meink, senior deputy director of the NRO, took note of the upcoming launch of NROL-146 and stated that the NRO “has already launched a number of demonstrations in recent years to verify cost and performance, but this will be the first release of an operating system.”

“These systems will increase the timeliness of access, diversify communication pathways and improve our resilience,” Meink said. “About half a dozen of these launches are planned for 2024, with additional launches expected through 2028. You'll hear more details about launch locations, dates and times as they become closer.”

The NRO is not the only government agency calling for the use of the Starshield satellite bus. SpaceX also built some of the satellites for the Space Development Agencypart of the US Space Force, launching in 2023 as part of its Tracking Layer Tranche 0A and 0B missions.

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