SpaceX is closing a year of record placement from Space Coast Florida – Spaceflight Now

Falcon 9 rocket takes off from pad 39A with NROL-108 mission. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX launched the secret cargo into space for a U.S. government spy satellite group on Saturday, the 30th rocket launched to fly into Earth’s orbit from hulls on Florida’s Space Coast in 2020. A mission broke- Falcon 9 aircraft annual schedule for missions to reach orbit from Florida. a spaceport that lasted for 54 years.

This was the 31st major rocket launch from the entire Florida Coast Coast this year, including a high-profile demonstration of the Space Crew Dragon shortening system in January.

SpaceX recorded 25 launches from Florida this year – with 24 orbital missions – and United Launch Alliance flew six times with the Atlas 5 and Delta 4-Heavy rocket families.

By 2020, the previous record for a launch from the Space Coast that reached orbit was 29, a mark set in 1966. There were 31 orbital launch attempts from Cape Canaveral that year, which more than two suborbital test planes of a Saturn 1B surgeon during the Apollo, for a total of 33 space launches from Florida in 1966, according to a launch schedule maintained by Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Astrophysics Center Harvard-Smithsonian who oversees global satellite activity and launch.

Running at the break of that record will have to wait another year.

SpaceX’s second special mission for the National Observation Office – and the company’s last 26th flight – began at 9 a.m. EST (1400 GMT) on Saturday.

A 229-foot-tall, or 70-meter, Falcon rocket took an eight-minute trip into orbit from the 39A pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Nine Merlin 1D engines came to life and powered the 1.2-million-pound launcher off pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, driving the Falcon 9 through scattered clouds northeast from Coast. Florida Space.

The kerosene fuel surgeon shut down its first-stage engines nearly two-and-a-half minutes into flight, allowing the elevator to rise and begin a “back-up” movement by controlling some of the aircraft. his engines.

This ascending course reversed and made a supernatural descent back to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, where the rocket settled into an on-target observatory on Landing Zone 1 just over eight minutes after taking off. away.

The reusable mission, named B1059, completed its fifth spacewalk and return. This was the 70th time SpaceX has successfully boosted Falcon since it first landed on December 21, 2015, five years ago on Monday.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket takes off Saturday from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Reputation: National Audit Office

The exact reason for NRO’s payload on Saturday’s mission, codenamed NROL-108, has been kept secret by a government spy satellite agency. The SpaceX live webcast of the release focused on returning the first stage to Cape Canaveral, and completed live video from the platform at the request of the NRO.

The NRO announced the success of the publication in a tweet several hours after construction, circulating the intelligence gathering agency’s sixth publication of the year.

This was the 26th launch of Falcon 9 by SpaceX alone this year, involving 25 flights from Florida and one from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. SpaceX’s previous record was 21 for the biggest Falcon shows in a year.

“NROL-108 has a national security payload designed, built and operated by the National Audit Office,” an NRO spokesman said in response to questions from Spaceflight Now. “Further information on payroll and its mission is protected. The name or names of the contractor or contractors involved in the discharge of this payment obligation are also protected. ”

The NROL-108 mission did not appear on public launch charts until early October, when Spaceflight Now first reported the mission. At the time, the mission was scheduled for Oct. 25, but the flight was delayed several times amid a change of SpaceX launch schedules and other NRO launch activity at Cape Canaveral.

SpaceX scrapped a start-up attempt for the NROL-108 mission Thursday to assess slightly high pressure readings inside a Falcon 9 rocket high-level melt oxygen tank Crews at pad 39A lowered the rocket horizontally for inspections before lifting it directly again late Friday.

The NRO broke with normal practice to launch the publication commercially, outside of established government contracting schemes.

An NRO spokesman confirmed that the agency received launch services for the NROL-108 on their own, without going through the U.S. National Space Force Security Launch program.

“The NRO uses a number of methods to obtain launch services in support of a mission-led mission above the organization, to include a partnership with the US Space Force under the National Security Space Launch program ( NSSL), ”said an NRO spokesperson.

“In some cases, the NRO uses alternative means of obtaining launch services following a cumulative assessment of satellite risk tolerance, required start dates, launch capabilities, and cost – all for the purpose of ensuring that satellites are safely delivered into orbit. in good time, ”said the spokesperson.

The Launch Space Security Launch program is used for the most critical military satellites and intelligence gathering in government.

Credit: Steven Young / Spaceflight Now

The NRO reserved SpaceX for the commercial launch of the NROL-108, reserving the flights on the SpaceX manifesto similar to the way a private satellite operator would purchase a flight. That usually costs less than the U.S. government’s launch contract, which comes with additional oversight and other additional costs.

SpaceX’s previously dedicated NRO mission – NROL-76 in 2017 – was also part of a commercial launch service organized between the spy satellite group and Ball Aerospace, a satellite manufacturer based in Boulder, Colorado. Aerospace Ball secured the launch with SpaceX on behalf of the NRO, and handed over the registered payload to the NRO after it was safely in orbit.

The commercial nature of the NRO launch contract with SpaceX gave the Federal Aviation Administration a regulatory eye on the mission, just as the Falcon 9 would launch a privately owned payload.

The launch was the 38th FAA-licensed commercial space event of the year by a U.S.-based company, surpassing the previous mark of 33 such missions in 2018. That number brings including flights from other U.S. spaceports, and flights by Rocket Lab with U.S. headquarters from its private base in New Zealand.

“The future for this industry is not optimistic, prognostication and optimistic thinking,” said Wayne Monteith, FAA associate administrator for space transportation. “It’s showing accelerated growth. It is an increase in the number of steroids. ”

“We’ve launched more commercial space bogs in just the last four years than we’ve done in the previous 15 years combined,” Monteith said Tuesday in a keynote presentation at the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium 365 forum. “In 2011, we only had one commercial space launch.”

“Next year, we should go over 50 commercial publications, and maybe over 100 shortly thereafter,” Monteith said. “We are seeing mega-constellations go up, and we are seeing the beginning of a very strong space tourism sector. We see campaigns for commercial endeavors outside the world. We see commercial companies that can return stuff from space. ”

SpaceX will begin the 2021 launch mission in early January, when the Falcon 9 rocket plans to launch a Turksat 5A communications satellite into Jan orbit. 4 from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The launch of another Florida Falcon 9 in mid-January will lift dozens of small satellites in a shared commercial mission for several U.S. and international customers.

The purpose of NROL-108 remains a mystery

Marco Langbroek, a Dutch archaeologist and expert in satellite orbits, said information gathered from airspace warnings about orbit targeted by the NROL-108 mission reveals some insights into a cause that is likely to be responsible. pay.

The initial route to the northeast and the Falcon 9’s high-altitude re-entry over the Minch shows that the mission was expected to put its cargo in orbit. going about 52 degrees to the equator, according to Langbroek.

The Falcon 9 saved enough propellant at first to return to landing at Cape Canaveral, instead of aiming to land on a SpaceX droneship. That indicated that the mission appears to be aimed at a relatively low orbit a few hundred miles above Earth, Langbroek wrote on its website, similar but not identical to the NROL-76 mission orbit in 2017.

The expected orbit for the NROL-108 mission does not correspond to the NRO’s known fleet of optical information satellites, radar, and signals, expert analysts said.

A group of hobbyist satellite tractors will try to find the payload of NROL-108 after launch. The military will not release orbital data on U.S. national security satellites.

“It will be interesting to see where the orbit of NROL-108 ends,” Langbroek wrote. “As I said with some launches earlier this year, the latest NRO shows seem to be ‘new’ pay types that are likely to be experimental / mission exhibitors, and are entering ‘new’ orbits. ”

“The character of the secret is a mystery: this seems to be something new again,” he wrote.

Ted Molczan, a satellite observer from Canada, said Langbroek ‘s orbit estimate suggests the payload of NROL-108 repeats ground cover every three days or so.

“Repeated terrains that are two- or four-day intervals are very common in NRO satellites,” Molczan told Spaceflight Now. “They enable quick review of targets, which is useful for review.

Molczan warned that while viewers and analysts can extract information about NRO satellites through orbital information, optical features, and radio broadcasts, the exact mission may still remain a mystery.

“While much can be learned through the study of orbits, optical features, and radio broadcasts, the exact mission may remain a mystery until someone with inside knowledge lets it into the news media,” said Molczan.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.