The National Reconnaissance Office successfully launched four classified payloads into orbit July 15 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility — the agency’s first dedicated launch from the Virginia facility.
NRO is in charge of acquiring, launching and operating the nation’s intelligence satellites, and while the agency does not typically reveal the details or purpose of its classified satellites, the agency’s director noted that the four payloads will demonstrate revolutionary capabilities.
Despite an anomaly that caused the company's most recent launch to fail to reach orbit, both the Pentagon and the intelligence community are moving forward with their scheduled missions with Rocket Lab.
“NROL-129 represents a collaboration between the NRO and our industry partners to design, build, launch and operate a system of satellites that will demonstrate revolutionary capabilities of value to the nation and our allies,” said NRO Director Chris Scolese. “Despite facing challenges in 2020, we have found new and better ways to collaborate with our partners from a distance, relentlessly pursuing our mission and denying sanctuary to our adversaries.”
The four NRO-built payloads — dubbed NROL-129 — were launched aboard a Northrop Grumman Minotaur IV rocket at 9:46 a.m. ET. This was NRO’s first launch with a Northrop Grumman Minotaur IV, a rocket capable of delivering payloads of up to 3,814 lbs into low Earth orbit. The first three stages of the four stage, 78-foot tall rocket utilize solid rocket motors taken from decommissioned Peacekeeper ICBMs.
The launch was acquired under the U.S. Air Force’s Orbital/Suborbital Program-3, a contract mechanism built to take advantage of the growing commercial small launch sector.
This was NRO’s third launch of 2020 and its first to take place on U.S. soil. The previous two launches, taking place respectively in January and June, were launched aboard Rocket Lab Electron rockets from the company’s New Zealand facility.
The agency’s next mission, NROL-44, is set to launch in August from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.