SpaceX did its best to preserve the secrecy of its first National Reconnaissance Office launch, NROL-76, by shifting its Livestream coverage to focus on landing its Falcon 9 booster instead. The result is pure engineering beauty.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched out of Cape Canaveral, Florida on May 1, 2017 carrying a classified National Reconnaissance Office payload into orbit. Credit: SpaceX/Mika McKinnon
Launching out of Cape Canaveral in Florida, the original launch attempt on Sunday, April 30th, was scrubbed due to a malfunctioning sensor. The sensor was swapped out, and the rocket lifted off at the beginning of the launch window at 7:15 am Eastern time on Monday morning.
Fins on the first stage booster flip out to provide stability, while white puffs from the hydrogen thrusters perform heading adjustments. Credit: SpaceX/Mika McKinnon
High-altitude winds were unusually high during the launch, leading SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to tweet, “Worrying, but not a showstopper.” He later elaborated, “Tough call, as high altitude wind shear was at 98.6% of the theoretical load limit.”
After the Falcon 9 first stage and second stage detached, the webcast focused on the first stage return and dropped coverage of the second stage prior to shedding the concealing fairing and payload separation. After a fast flip to reorient, the rocket booster fired a boostback burn in a ring of fire to head back to Cape Canaveral for a ground landing on Landing Pad 1.
After the Falcon 9 first stage separation, the second stage continued into orbit with its classified payload while the first stage rocket booster performed a fast flip and boostback burn to return to its landing zone in Florida. Credit: SpaceX/Mika McKinnon
Hydrogen thrusters created white puffs as the booster adjusted its course, combatting the strong winds. The entry and landing burns finished slowing the rocket down for a soft touchdown, the fourth successful ground landing for a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
The Falcon 9 first stage performs a landing burn to shed speed before touching down at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: SpaceX/Mika McKinnon
This mission used a new rocket, and the booster will be refurbished for reuse. SpaceX completed its first mission with a previously-flown rocket booster by launching a communications satellite in March.
Payload details for the new spy satellite are not public, but satellite orbits will be quickly determined when skywatching amateurs spot a new artificial object traversing the skies.
The Falcon 9 first stage landed at Cape Canaveral, Florida on May 1, 2017 for SpaceX’s fourth successful ground-landing booster recovery. Credit: SpaceX/Mika McKinnon
From the launch timing and direction, the satellite is destined for an inclined orbit that is neither geosynchronous nor heliosynchronous. This is consistent with orbits used by National Reconnaissance Office imaging or communications satellites.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket loaded with a classified National Reconnaissance Office blasting off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 7:15 am local time on May 1, 2017. Credit: SpaceX