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SpaceX Launches Multiple Satellites for NRO from Vandenberg Space Base – SpaceFlight Now

SpaceX Launches Multiple Satellites for NRO from Vandenberg Space Base – SpaceFlight Now
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Vandenberg Space Base on the NROL-186 mission on June 28, 2024. Image: SpaceX

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

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

The Falcon 9 first-stage booster supporting this mission, which carries tail number B1081 in the SpaceX fleet, launched for the eighth time. Its previous missions have included launching the Crew-7 astronaut mission to the International Space Station, two climate-monitoring satellites (NASA’s PACE and ESA’s EarthCARE) and two Starlink flights.

Just over eight minutes after takeoff, B1081 landed the drone, “Of Course I Still Love You.” It was OCISLY’s 95th landing and the 326th to date.

Diffuse architecture grows

This mission was the second launch of the NRO’s so-called “engineering proliferators,” following the launch of the NROL-146 mission in May. Reports from Reuters earlier this year indicated that these satellites are based on the Starshield satellite bus that SpaceX built in partnership with Northrop Grumman.

In a statement to Spaceflight Now, the National Reconnaissance Organization said:

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

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The agency also refused to confirm the number of satellites included in these missions, as well as their orbit. In a speech at this year’s Space Symposium in Colorado, There will be “about half a dozen such launches” this year, said Dr. Troy Mink, deputy principal director of the National Reconnaissance Organization.

These tasks were not executed as part of the National Security Space Launch Program (NSSL) Phase II mission order. This is because the National Reconnaissance Office needed to execute these tasks before assigning the Phase III mission order tasks.

“The NRO partnered with the USSF Space Systems Command’s Assured Space Access team on Phase 3 acquisition and influenced the development of Phase 3, Track 1 – as a means of procuring flexible launch solutions with customizable mission assurance,” an NRO spokesperson said in a statement. “When considering the launch cadence and the need for customizable mission assurance, the NRO realized that we needed a bridge from Phase 2 to Phase 3 – Track 1. This led to some missions being procured outside of the NSSL. The NSSL has been, and will continue to be, the NRO’s primary mechanism for procuring launch services.