Using the same Falcon 9 booster, SpaceX has successfully completed its second National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite launch in a little over two months.
Falcon 9 booster B1071 debuted on February 2nd, 2022, carrying the NROL-87 payload and a Falcon second stage (S2) most of the way into space before landing just ~400 meters (~1400 ft) away from where it lifted off. Falcon S2 later inserted the payload – one or several spy satellites – into a circular 513-kilometer (~320 mi) polar orbit. In theory, Falcon 9 can launch up to nine metric tons (~20,000 lb) to NROL-87’s orbit, while past missions imply a payload mass somewhere between two and four tons. The NRO’s infamous secrecy means that it could be decades before the purpose of the mission is so much as hinted at.
During the webcast, SpaceX confirmed that it would reuse Falcon 9 booster B1071 on a future NRO launch. A month and a half later, the NRO confirmed that that future launch – scheduled as early as April 15th – was NROL-85.
The NRO also stated that NROL-85 would be “a lot like NROL-87.” While true at a surface level, mission reference documents released before launch contracts were rewarded showed NROL-85 heading to an orbit of 1221 x 1024 kilometers (759 x 636 mi) at an inclination of 63 degrees – significantly different than NROL-87’s relatively normal sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). That unique and specific orbit led unofficial outside observers to immediately class NROL-85 as a new pair of “NOSS-3/INTRUDER” naval espionage satellites – an identity that SpaceX’s official mission patch may or may not have subtly confirmed.
Regardless, flying for the second time, Falcon 9 booster B1071 again performed nominally after lifting off from Vandenberg Space Force Base’s (VSFB) SLC-4 facilities just before sunrise on April 17th – pushed back from April 15th by small technical and weather issues. As usual, at the request of the NRO, SpaceX showed no footage of the upper stage and ended the launch webcast immediately after Falcon 9’s landing. An hour later, the NRO confirmed that the launch was a success.
While more contracts will assuredly be awarded in the near future, SpaceX only has one more NRO contract on record and that launch – NROL-69 – is scheduled no earlier than Q3 2023. Having successfully completed two back-to-back NRO launches, Falcon 9 B1071 will almost certainly enter SpaceX’s general-purpose fleet and begin supporting a range of other mission types.