SpaceX sent a U.S. spy satellite to orbit today (Feb. 2) in the second of three planned launches over a four-day stretch. SpaceX hauled a classified payload into orbit for the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency Wednesday from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, accomplishing another successful launch and landing on the second of three Falcon 9 rocket missions planned this week.
A little over eight minutes later, the Falcon 9’s first stage came back to Earth for a pinpoint touchdown at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 4 at Vandenberg. The upper stage, meanwhile, continued carrying NROL-87 to orbit.
The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4 East at 3:28 p.m. Eastern, heading south over the Pacific Ocean. After separation from the upper stage, the rocket’s first stage landed back at Landing Zone 4 about eight minutes after liftoff. This was the 105th booster successfully recovered by SpaceX.
The nearly 16-story-tall booster stage followed an arc to a peak altitude of 89 miles (144 kilometers) before plunging back to Earth, using hypersonic grid fins and engine burns to slow down for a vertical landing at Vandenberg.
Four legs unfurled from the base of the rocket as it settled onto the ground at Landing Zone 4, SpaceX’s West Coast landing site a quarter-mile from the mission’s launch pad.
The Falcon 9 rocket aimed to place its payload into a north-south polar orbit about 318 miles (512 kilometers) above Earth, with an inclination of 97.4 degrees to the equator. But little more is publicly known about the spacecraft that rode SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket into orbit from Vandenberg.
For this mission, the Falcon 9 flew with a brand-new first stage, per government request. Michael Ellis, SpaceX director of national security space launch, said the recovered booster would be refurbished for a future NRO mission.
The NROL-87 launch came just two days after SpaceX delivered the Italian CSG-2 Earth-observation satellite to orbit from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. And the company plans to launch 49 of its Starlink internet satellites on Thursday (Feb. 3) from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which is also on Florida’s Space Coast.
SpaceX received a contract from the U.S. Air Force in February 2019 to launch NROL-87. SpaceX has previously launched two NRO satellites under commercial contracts.
NROL-87 was the NRO’s first launch of the year and its first with SpaceX under a $316 million National Security Space Launch contract that was signed in 2020, NRO officials said via Twitter on Tuesday (Feb. 1). It was also the first NRO mission to involve a rocket landing.
Walt Lauderdale, launch vehicle lead at the Space Force’s Space Systems Command, said NROL-87 marked SpaceX’s fifth NSSL launch. The first four were GPS satellites.
The NRO booked two previous missions on Falcon 9 rockets that launched from Florida in 2017 and 2020 through lower-cost commercial contract arrangements, eschewing the close oversight of the military. The NROL-87 mission returned to the established formula for the NRO’s numerous missions that have flown on United Launch Alliance Atlas and Delta rockets.
Today’s launch was SpaceX’s fifth of 2022. The mission marked the company’s 143rd orbital launch overall and its 105th booster landing. SpaceX commonly reuses Falcon 9 first stages, as well as those of its Falcon Heavy rocket, as a way to reduce launch costs and boost productivity.
Last year, the NRO said it had reserved two missions for launch on Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicles from New Zealand. Those two launches — NROL-162 and NROL-199 — likely account for two more missions later this year.
By breaking the monopoly, the launch became something of a coup for both SpaceX and private space companies in general. Governmental organizations like NASA are increasingly turning to private companies for tasks ranging from satellite deployment to human transportation into space.
While NASA has worked with commercial companies before, the degree of responsibility given to private companies like SpaceX has risen considerably in recent years.
SpaceX has launched more than 2,000 privately-owned Starlink satellites to date, delivering high-speed, low-latency internet services to consumers in more than 20 countries.