SpaceX to Launch First Batch of Satellites for NRO’s Exploration Satellite Constellation – Spaceflight Now

An illustration of the NROL-146 mission patch design. Graphic: NRO

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) will begin building a constellation of unknown size with a midnight launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The mission, called NROL-146, will involve an undisclosed number of satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The launch from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) is scheduled for the start of a launch window that opens at 1 a.m. PDT (4 a.m. EDT, 8 a.m. UTC).

Spaceflight Now will report live approximately 30 minutes before launch.

The Falcon 9 first stage booster supporting this mission, tail number B1071 in the SpaceX fleet, is making its 16th launch. The first two flights were for NRO missions and a few Transporter rideshare flights were also launched.

Just over eight minutes after launch, B1071 lands on the SpaceX drone ship, ‘Of Course I Still Love You’. This will be the 91st recovery operation for OCISLY and the 310th booster landing to date for SpaceX.

Starshield flies

While the details of the mission are largely classified, the payload on board is believed to be a group of Starshield satellites. These are government-specific versions of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, which the company previously stated will focus on three main areas:

  • Earth observation
  • Communication
  • Hosted payloads

In the lead-up to the final Delta 4 Heavy launch with the NROL-70 payload, Dr. Chris Scolese, the head of the NRO, noted that the agency began launching prototypes for its constellation “about five years ago.”

“We recognized that we had challenges, as we said, with Russia and China trying to deny our ability to operate in space,” Scolese said in March. “So that was one reason. The other reason we needed it is because we realized we needed more sustainable coverage of the Earth. So we had to expand.”

Scolese said this involved working with commercial providers to drive down costs. He did not mention Check SpaceX in his comments, but he was responding to a question that referred to reporting on Reuters’ Starshield.

In April, Reuters first reported that Northrop Grumman was working with SpaceX to test some Starshield satellites and provide sensors for some of the spacecraft. The planned constellation will reportedly consist of “hundreds of satellites,” although a more specific number has not been reported.

The wire service was also the first to report that SpaceX was tapped in 2021 to receive a previously undisclosed $1.8 billion contract for the NRO’s new constellation.

Dr. Troy Meink, deputy director of the NRO, gave a keynote speech at the 39th Space Symposium in Colorado. Image: NRO

While commenting at the 2024 Space Symposium in Colorado, Dr. Troy Meink, the NRO’s deputy director, noted the upcoming NROL-146 launch, stating that the NRO “has already conducted a number of demonstrations in recent years launched to verify cost and performance, but this will be the first launch of an operational system.”

“These systems will increase the timeliness of access, diversify communication routes and increase our resilience,” Meink said. “About half a dozen of these launches are planned for 2024, with additional launches expected through 2028. You’ll hear more details about launch locations, dates and times as they get closer.”

The NRO is not the only government agency to rely on the use of the Starshield satellite bus. SpaceX also built some satellites for the Space Development Agency, part of the US Space Force, which launched in 2023 as part of its Tracking Layer Tranche 0A and 0B missions.

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