Space Image

SpaceX Launches First Batch Of New Classified NRO Imaging Satellites

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched the first batch of classified imaging satellites for a new National Reconnaissance Office constellation into orbit early Wednesday morning.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Wed May 22 2024Written by Zac Aubert

Vandenberg Space Force Base, California — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched a classified payload of small spacecraft into orbit early Wednesday morning for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The mission, designated NROL-146, took off at 4:00 a.m. Eastern from Vandenberg Space Force Base, marking SpaceX’s 52nd launch of the year and the fifth Falcon 9 mission for the NRO.

The Falcon 9’s first stage, completing its 16th mission, separated from the upper stage shortly after liftoff and landed on a drone ship stationed in the Pacific Ocean. This landing marked SpaceX's 310th recovery of a first-stage booster. At the NRO's request, SpaceX ended the webcast after the first stage landed and did not show images of the rocket’s upper stage.

The NRO, responsible for designing and operating the U.S. government’s classified surveillance and intelligence satellites, has not disclosed the number of satellites launched on this mission or the expected size of the new constellation. However, the NRO has previously indicated plans for six launches in 2024 to expand its architecture of small satellites.

NROL-146 represents the NRO’s first deployment of a new imaging satellite constellation developed in collaboration with SpaceX and Northrop Grumman. The agency aims to significantly increase its orbital assets, with plans to quadruple the number of spacecraft in orbit. This expansion is expected to enhance the frequency of revisits to critical areas, allowing for quicker delivery of crucial intelligence.

“This mission is the first launch of the NRO’s proliferated systems featuring responsive collection and rapid data delivery...NROL-146 represents the first launch of an operational system following demonstrations in recent years to verify cost and performance.” - NRO

The launch of NROL-146 is a significant milestone for the NRO as it transitions from demonstration to operational deployment of its new satellite systems. The increased number of smaller satellites is anticipated to provide more agile and resilient intelligence capabilities, crucial for national security.

As SpaceX continues to support NRO missions, the successful launch of NROL-146 underscores the growing collaboration between commercial space companies and government agencies to advance the capabilities and reach of U.S. space-based intelligence.