A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosted a classified National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) payload into orbit early Sunday after a foggy California launch, the company’s 14th flight so far this year.
Mounted atop pad 4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base northwest of Los Angeles, the rocket’s nine first-stage engines ignited with a rush of flame at 9:13 a.m. EDT (6:13 a.m. local time), throttled up to 1.7 million pounds of thrust and smoothly pushed the vehicle away from its seaside firing stand.
The first stage, making its second flight, took off on a southerly trajectory, boosting the upper stage and its NRO payload out of the dense lower atmosphere. Two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the stage fell away and the single engine powering the Falcon 9 second stage took over for the remainder of the ascent.
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The reusable first stage, meanwhile, flipped around, restarted three engines to reverse course and flew itself back to Vandenberg, touching down at Landing Zone 4 about eight minutes after liftoff. Landing marked SpaceX’s 114th successful booster recovery and its fifth in California.
As usual with classified payloads, SpaceX did not provide any details about the mission other than to confirm the second stage reached orbit as planned. The NRO did not release any information about the satellite payload, but confirmed mission success in a statement.
“I’m proud of the teamwork, skill and determination that went into making this launch a success and ultimately to delivering critical information to our nation’s policymakers, military, and intelligence community,” NRO Director Chris Scolese said.
Added Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Space Systems Command’s Launch Enterprise: “It was superb. The integrated team, the rocket, the satellite, everything was go and this launch went smoothly.”
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Based on the launch time and a variety of other factors including military procurement documents, independent space analysts speculated the Falcon 9 likely carried two Naval Ocean Surveillance System, or NOSS, satellites into orbit that work in pairs to electronically monitor and locate ships at sea.