SpaceX launched a clandestine spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and landed the returning rocket back on Earth today (April 17), acing a spaceflight twofer on Easter.
A two-stage Falcon 9 rocket carrying the NROL-85 spacecraft lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California today at 9:13 a.m. EDT (1313 GMT; 6:13 a.m. local California time)
The SpaceX rocket's two stages separated about 2.5 minutes later. The first stage headed back to Earth, making a vertical touchdown at Vandenberg's Landing Zone 4 roughly eight minutes after launch in what may be the ultimate bunny hop on the Easter Sunday holiday. SpaceX ended its live webcast of the launch just after the Falcon 9 landing at the NRO's request due to the mission's classified nature.
This was the second landing for this particular booster, which also helped to loft the NROL-87 spacecraft, another NRO spy satellite, from Vandenberg on Feb. 2, according to a SpaceX mission description. Today's flight marked the first time that an NRO satellite has flown on a used rocket, NRO officials said.
"It also marks our 114th overall successful recovery of a first-stage booster," John Insprucker, SpaceX's principal integration engineer, said after the landing.
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The upper stage of the Falcon 9 that launched today, meanwhile, continued powering its way to orbit, where it will ultimately deploy the NROL-85 satellite. We're not sure exactly when or where that deployment will take place — no surprise, given who booked today's flight.
The NRO operates the United States' fleet of spy satellites and generally reveals few details about the activities and payloads of these craft. NROL-85 is no exception; the NRO's mission press kit devotes very few words to the satellite, describing it simply as "a national security payload designed, built and operated by NRO."Image 1 of 2
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Today's launch was SpaceX's 14th of 2022 and its second in just over a week. On April 8, a Falcon 9 lofted Ax-1, the first-ever all-private crewed mission to the International Space Station. Ax-1's Dragon capsule is scheduled to depart the orbiting lab on April 19 and return to Earth with an ocean splashdown a day later.
And more SpaceX liftoffs are coming soon. A Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch a big batch of SpaceX's Starlink internet satellites on April 21 from Florida's Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, for example.
And on April 23, the company will launch the Crew-4 mission for NASA, sending four professional astronauts toward the orbiting lab for a lengthy stay. Crew-4 will lift off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, which is next door to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @ or on Facebook.
This news comes from: Space