US to launch four intelligence payloads July 15

Four National Reconnaissance Office payloads will be launched into orbit July 15, continuing the agency’s efforts to leverage the small commercial launch market for its missions.

The U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center announced July 11 that it successfully completed its flight readiness review, putting the launch on track for its 9 a.m. ET window at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

For the National Reconnaissance Office Launch-129 (NROL-129) mission, four payloads built and designed by NRO will be placed on orbit. The agency, which is charged with acquiring and managing the nation’s intelligence satellites, typically does not release details about the payloads it places on orbit or their purpose, and NROL-129 is not an exception.

The launch contract was awarded through the U.S. Air Force’s Orbital/Suborbital Program-3, or OSP-3, a contract mechanism designed to take advantage of commercial small launch providers. OSP-3 expired in November 2019 and was replaced by OSP-4.

“We look forward to launching NROL-129 for our National Reconnaissance Office customer,” Brig. Gen. Jason Cothern, Space and Missile Systems Center vice commander and Air Force program executive officer for space enterprise, said in a statement. “This is a great example of using SMC’s small launch contracts to expand our capability to provide reliable assured access to space.”

The NROL-129 mission will use one of Northrop Grumman’s Minotaur IV rockets, which are capable of launching payloads up to 3,814 pounds into low Earth orbit. This is the first time an NRO mission has taken place on a Minotaur IV rocket, although the Air Force previously used them.

“We have successfully launched 26 Minotaur missions with our last Minotaur mission from Wallops in 2013,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Rose, chief of SMC’s Small Launch and Targets Division. “This will be our first U.S. Space Force mission and the first dedicated NRO mission from Wallops. We look forward to continuing to launch national priority satellites for our NRO partner.”

This will be the NRO’s first mission launched from U.S. soil in 2020, since its other two launches took place from Rocket Lab’s New Zealand facility. Those two launches were acquired with the new Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket contract vehicle, a mechanism adopted by the agency in 2018 that — like OSP-3 and OSP-4 — seeks to leverage the commercial small satellite launch market for government launches.

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