For SpaceUpClose.com & RocketSTEM
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – SpaceX dazzled to the end with the beautiful and spectacular breakfast time Saturday launch of the clandestine NROL-108 national security spy satellite payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) on a five time recycled Falcon 9 booster, just in time to shirk away looming dark clouds overtaking the Florida Space Coast – and thereby establishing a new record setting launch cadence for the innovative rocket company.
The flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster 1059.5 finally launched today, Sat., Dec. 19, after a 48 hour delay forced the first attempt was scrubbed Thursday morning, Dec. 17, in the final minute of the countdown when a second stage sensor indicated slightly high pressure in the liquid oxygen (LOX) tank – under truly gloomy weather conditions at Florida’s Spaceport that completely obscured the view of the rocket for a most of the time during the count.
Liftoff of the 23-story tall single stick SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the NROL-108 intelligence gathering mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) took place right at the opening of the three hour window at 9:00 a.m. EST (14:00 GMT), Saturday, Dec. 19 from seaside Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.
Fueled by LOX and RP-1 kerosene the 9 Merlin 1D engines ignited to generate 1.7 million pounds of liftoff thrust and a tremendous roar enabling the Falcon 9 to soar off pad 39A to deliver NROL-108 to an unknown orbit on an unknown mission.
SpaceX also successfully soft landed the 1st stage back at the Cape at Landing Zone-1 some eight and a half minutes after liftoff.
The thrilling landing sent multiple sonic boom shock waves screaming across the Space Coast region
The mission carried a classified national security payload designed, built, and operated by the NRO in support of its overhead reconnaissance mission, said the NRO.
NROL-108 also counts as the second dedicated SpaceX launch for the NRO following the initial launch of NROL-76 in May 2017
“We are excited to partner with SpaceX again,” said NRO’s Principal Deputy Director Dr. Troy Meink, in a statement.
“The successful launch of NROL-108 by SpaceX just days after the launch of NROL-44 by United Launch Alliance, underscores NRO’s commitment to a robust launch schedule supported by a growing number of partners and locations,” Meink continued.
“Despite the challenges of 2020, NRO this year has successfully launched six missions from two countries. We are dedicated to delivering reconnaissance capabilities that keep this nation and our allies safe, while prioritizing the security and health of our launch teams.”
— NRO (@NatReconOfc) December 19, 2020
Despite all the challenges caused by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic this past year, SpaceX managed to launch a record setting total of 26 rockets in 2020.
Watch this launch video from SpaceX taken on a helicopter overlooking KSC and the Space Coast region
Footage from a helicopter of Falcon 9‘s 26th and final launch of 2020 pic.twitter.com/Ol90RiJvcP
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 20, 2020
Enjoy our Space UpClose launch and prelaunch photos of the SpaceX Falcon 9 horizontal and vertical at pad 39A taken by the team of Ken Kremer and Jean Wright.
Following stage separation, SpaceX accomplished a precision guided propulsive soft landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage on Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida about eight and a half minutes after launch.
The 16 story tall booster re-fired a subset of the first stage engines.
Falcon 9’s first stage booster previously supported launch of SpaceX’s 19th and 20th cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station, a Starlink mission, and the SAOCOM 1B mission. See our earlier articles and photos.
SpaceX has now successfully soft landed 70 Falcon 9 first stages altogether.
Watch this landing video tweeted by SpaceX:
Falcon 9’s first stage has landed on Landing Zone 1 pic.twitter.com/mR18Qv3GoC
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 19, 2020
What is the nature of the NROL-108 payload?
Although nothing is known about the nature of the NROL-108 intelligence payload or its mission some clues have been gathered and assessed outside analysts such as Marco Langbroek, a Dutch archaeologist and an expert in satellite movements
“The time window for the upper stage deorbit and the fact that the first stage will attempt an RTLS point to a launch into Low Earth Orbit. The launch direction and the location of the Falcon 9 upper stage deorbit area point to a launch into an orbit with an orbital inclination near 52 degrees,” wrote the Dutch satellite tracking expert Marco Langbroek in his prelaunch blogpost.
— Dr Marco Langbroek (@Marco_Langbroek) December 15, 2020
Post launch Langbroek tweeted that radio observers had actually located NROL-108
— Dr Marco Langbroek (@Marco_Langbroek) December 20, 2020
Data collected by NRO’s national security systems are used to provide intelligence to United States’ senior policy makers, the Intelligence Community, and Department of Defense, as well as U.S. allied partners. Additionally, information collected by NRO systems can be used to assist emergency and disaster relief efforts in the U.S. and around the world, says the NRO.
What is the mission of the NRO for US National Security needs?
“Develop. Acquire. Launch. Operate. When the United States needs eyes and ears where no human can reach, it turns to the National Reconnaissance Office. #NROL108 will be the NRO’s sixth launch of 2020. #WeAretheNRO #PeaceThroughStrength,” the NRO tweeted.
Develop. Acquire. Launch. Operate. When the United States needs eyes and ears where no human can reach, it turns to the National Reconnaissance Office. #NROL108 will be the NRO’s sixth launch of 2020. #WeAretheNRO #PeaceThroughStrength 🚀🦍
— NRO (@NatReconOfc) December 15, 2020
“The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is an Intelligence Community element and Department of Defense organization responsible for developing, acquiring, launching and operating America’s reconnaissance satellites, as well as operating associated data processing facilities in support of national security,” per a NRO mission statement.
There have been a slew of 6 national security NRO launches this year including three in the past month or so on both SpaceX Falco 9 rockets and United Launch Alliance Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy rockets from the Space Coast – see out launch articles and photos covering each mission.
“NROL-108 will be the NRO’s sixth launch of 2020 and will carry a national security payload designed, built and operated by the agency,” said the NRO in a statement .
“The NRO recently collaborated with United Launch Alliance (ULA), Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, and the 45th Space Wing to launch the NROL-44 mission earlier this month on a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. NRO collaborated with these same partners in November 2020 to launch our NROL-101 mission on an Atlas V launch vehicle, also from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.”
The logo for the official NRO mission artwork emblazoned on the nose cone is ‘Peace Through Strength’ – see our photo below.
“The NROL-108 mission patch shows a gorilla beating its chest in front of a green background with the tagline “Peace Through Strength”. The NRO chose this theme because gorillas are peaceful animals but can be fierce when necessary. Like the gorilla, this mission is constantly vigilant and ready to defend its own, demonstrating NRO’s commitment to protecting U.S. warfighters, interests, and allies,” according to the NRO description.
Gorillas are peaceful animals but can be fierce when necessary. Like the gorilla, our #NROL108 mission is constantly vigilant and ready to defend its own, demonstrating NRO's commitment to protecting U.S. warfighters, interests, and allies. Launch scheduled NET Dec. 17 w/ @SpaceX pic.twitter.com/M5k7obXk08
— NRO (@NatReconOfc) December 14, 2020
The Falcon 9 stands at 70 m (229.6 ft) tall, 3.7 m (12 ft) diameter, weighs 549,054 kg (1,207,920 lb), and can lift 22,800 kg (50,265 lb) to Low Earth Orbit and 8,300 kg (18,300 lb) to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit.
Watch Ken’s continuing reports about National Security missions, SpaceX Crew Dragon, Starlink, Commercial Crew and Artemis and onsite for live reporting of upcoming and recent SpaceX and ULA launches including Demo-2, Starlink, X-37B, Solar Orbiter, Mars 2020 and more at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news: www.kenkremer.com –www.spaceupclose.com – twitter @ken_kremer – email: ken at kenkremer.com
Dr. Kremer is a research scientist and journalist based in the KSC area, active in outreach and interviewed regularly on TV and radio about space topics.
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