As the sun rose on the Kennedy Space Center this morning, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched with a classified satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the US Government agency in charge of intelligence spy satellites.
Just 2 minutes 25 seconds into the launch, the rocket’s first stage separated from its second stage, the part of the rocket that contained the secret NRO payload. Around the 9 minute mark, the first stage then returned to Earth and nailed its uprighting landing in Cape Canaveral.
Despite the second stage of the launch being fogged in secrecy, the rest of the launch ironically provided some of the clearest and most gorgeous shots of any of SpaceX's recent feats. You can watch the whole launch on the official launch webcast below and see its flawless landing at the bottom of the page.
SpaceX couldn’t provide any more details about the satellite or its orbit due to the nature of their client's work. The NRO uses satellites to provide information for policy makers, the Armed Services, the Intelligence Community, and civil agencies for a whole range of services. Some of their previous satellites have been used to assess damage following natural disasters, provide the US military with real-time imagery, and track terrorist or criminal organizations.
The rocket was set to launch on Sunday but had to be rescheduled at the last minute due to a rocket sensor glitch. Despite some slightly troublesome winds, in the end, all appeared to go swimmingly.
“Winds aloft are unusually high (still within structural safety bounds). Worrying, but not a showstopper,” Elon Musk, SpaceX founder, said on Twitter just before the launch.
Following the successful mission, Musk confirmed “Launch and landing of the NRO spy satellite was good. Tough call, as high altitude wind shear was at 98.6% of the theoretical load limit.”
A central part of SpaceX's vision has been the use of rockets capable of landing and being re-launched. This holds the potential to massively cut down on the cost of launches as some of the rockets' most expensive components can be reused. SpaceX managed to relaunch one of their reusable rockets for the first time in March this year.
With these big-money contracts rolling in, consecutive successful missions, and historical firsts under their belt, it seems not much can stop SpaceX at the moment.