The National Reconnaissance Office’s first satellite launch of 2020 will take place in New Zealand, with the agency taking advantage of a new contract vehicle designed to leverage growing commercial small satellite launch capabilities.
Rocket Lab, a Los Angeles-based company, announced Jan. 20 it had been selected by the NRO to launch the agency’s first satellite of 2020—NROL-151.
The National Reconnaissance Office is dipping its toe into the world of commercial data, awarding three study contracts that will put it on track to start purchasing commercial satellite imagery.
The NRO is the agency charged with acquiring and operating the United States’ intelligence satellites. As with most of its satellites, the NRO has not provided substantial details on NROL-151’s capabilities or purpose. It does, however, have a mission name: “Birds of a Feather.”
This launch is the first the NRO has awarded through the Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract vehicle, an acquisition method the agency adopted in 2018 to leverage commercial small satellite launch capabilities.
“(RASR) enables our exploration of new launch opportunities by providing a streamlined, commercial approach for launching (small satellites),” the agency wrote in a Jan. 20 Twitter thread. “Under this approach, RASR helps us pursue the use of both large & small satellites to create an integrated architecture that provides global coverage to answer a wide range of intelligence questions.”
Rocket Lab will use its Electron reusable rocket for the launch. Following a separate but successful mission in December, Rocket Lab will attempt a guided reentry of the first stage through the Earth’s atmosphere. The company has launched 47 small satellites aboard the Electron since the New Zealand launch site first began operating in Jan. 2018.
New Zealand is a Five Eyes country—one that has increased its space collaboration with the United States in recent months. On Twitter, the NRO stated it was looking forward to continued collaboration with New Zealand on the NROL-151 mission.
The launch window extends from Jan. 31 through Feb. 13 local time.