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SpaceX launches another top-secret payload to orbit

April 15th at 6:41 am E.T. from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California

Launching today were two top secret satellites heading to a low Earth orbit. This is the second NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) mission to fly this year, both via SpaceX and both from Space Launch Complex 4E. Also, interestingly enough both missions used the same rocket booster. Falcon 9 B1071 touched down safely back at landing zone 4 at the VSFB (Vandenberg Space Force Base) just minutes after launching from the same location, and just two months after launching and landing for the NROL-87 mission. This is the first year the NRO has used a SpaceX falcon 9 and the first time the NRO has ever flown on a reused booster.

NROL-85 lifting off at VSFB

While we don't know exactly what launched today, as with everything NRO it is all highly classified. Speculation is the pair of satellites are part of the NRO's Intruder mission, in part with the U.S. Navy's NOSS (Naval Ocean Surveillance System) which was created during the 70's with a goal of creating accurate geological maps of all the USSR's ground and sea assets. If this is true, the timing couldn't be better for a new pair of these satellites to get up there with all that is happening with Russia right now.

What we do know about with each NRO mission though is their patches. Each patch is related to the mission in some way and the organization does usually give an explanation as to what and why the details are as they are on the design. The NROL-85 patch shows a cute small kitten looking at its reflection in a puddle and seeing itself as a large fierce tiger. With the mission phrase being, "Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference." There are three stars on the patch which the NRO says represents guidance, protection, and allegiance. They also stated that the tiger in the reflection shows that while space can be challenging, a determined attitude helps the NRO go above and beyond to protect our nation.

B1071 landing in severe fog on the landing pad

On Tuesday April 5th SpaceX shared on Twitter that they had completed a static fire test of the Falcon 9 for the NROL-85 mission. This is a test where engineers fuel the rocket's first stage and briefly ignite the engines to give teams data which ensures the booster is ready for flight again. If you know about Vandenberg, California, then you know the area is often covered in a marine layer of fog. The cold coastal waters of California mix with the cold air and heat rising from the land and it creates this thick fog layer which blocks out everything, including a launching rocket. April however is a good month to view a launch as on average the area only gets eight days of fog, today not being one of those days. Even though the air temperature was in the high forties and low fifties today the fog stayed away as T-zero occurred shortly after sunrise, giving an absolutely spectacular view at lift off. Then, about eight minutes after launching B1071 came back down to land just a few hundred yards away from where it lifted off, once again igniting in the sky above us as it slowed down to land safely on the ground. Just before landing we heard and felt the sonic booms associated with these landings, but not noticed when the boosters come back down on their drone ships offshore.

With the success of today's mission, we reached a ninety-second reflight of a Falcon 9 rocket, closing in on the one-hundredth milestone. That's out of a total of one-hundred-forty-eight total Falcon 9 launches, this being the fourteenth of those this year. today's landing also marked the fortieth consecutive success, another milestone for the company as their successful landing streak continues to grow. Today also marks the twenty-second launch from the company's SLC_4E in Vandenberg. They don't get used quite as often as their launch sites in Cape Canaveral, Florida but the cadence on both coasts is increasing every year, and I'd expect to see many more by the years end.

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