The National Reconnaissance Office has confirmed it will launch a payload on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral later this month, a mission in the SpaceX schedule that was not publicly disclosed until recently.
A regulatory filing with the Federal Communications Commission recently revealed plans for a SpaceX launch from Cape Canaveral scheduled for October 25. But the mission details in the recording did not match any known launch in SpaceX’s schedule, sparking speculation that the launch may carry the US government’s national security payload.
SpaceX launched national security missions before then that were not announced until the final stages of preparations for the launch. The Zuma mission, a mysterious payload that was launched to the US government in January 2018, was not publicly included in any launch schedules or contract announcements until the final weeks before its planned takeoff.
In response to a question from Spaceflight Now, a NRO spokesperson on Monday confirmed that it is the customer to launch Falcon 9, scheduled for no later than October 25.
The NRO has a US government fleet of spy satellites to gather intelligence, provide imagery, signal intelligence, and other data.
Following its model public disclosure policy, the NRO did not disclose any information about the payload on the Falcon 9 flight later this month. But the NRO and US military officials usually disclose most NRO missions are in existence years ahead of time.
The NRO spokesperson said the Falcon 9 mission is assigned to NROL-108, and will take off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
NRO said in 2018 that the Zuma mission, which failed shortly after its launch, does not belong to that agency. If it continues this way, the NROL-108 mission is not likely to be a replacement for Zuma, despite the similarities in how the missions are revealed to the public.
Information disclosed in SpaceX’s FCC file, which seeks to gain authority to operate the mission’s radio transmitters, indicates that the first stage of the Falcon 9 booster will return to Cape Canaveral after takeoff for landing in Landing Zone 1.
On several SpaceX launches, the Falcon 9 booster lands aboard an unmanned ship stationed hundreds of miles offshore. The first stage does not need to hold the same amount of propellant for landing aboard the unmanned ship, but does require more fuel intended to reverse course and return to landing land near the launch site.
Cape Canaveral’s enhanced landing plans for the NROL-108 mission indicate that its payload is to be deployed in low altitude orbit, or that the satellite (or satellites) on board the aircraft will be relatively light.
The launch of NROL-108 is one of three National Reconnaissance Office missions that could take off this month from Cape Canaveral.
A company payload awaits take-off on United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy from Pad 37B in Florida Spaceport. This mission, codenamed NROL-44, was supposed to launch in late August, but was postponed due to a series of issues with the launch pad equipment.
The last launch attempt on September 30 ended seven seconds before takeoff when the countdown auto-sequencer caused a miscarriage. ULA has not announced a new target launch date.
Meanwhile, ULA teams at Platform 41 are preparing to launch an Atlas 5 missile later this month with the NROL-101 mission, slated to launch on another NRO-classified spy satellite.
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