WASHINGTON — The agency in charge of the nation’s spy satellites launched three classified satellites June 15 into low Earth orbit aboard a Northrop Grumman Minotaur I rocket.
The Minotaur lifted off from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, carrying the satellites designed and built by the National Reconnaissance Office. It was only the second time NRO has launched its payloads from Virginia, with the support of the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missiles System Center.
The agency did not disclose details about the satellites, only noting that they would support its overhead surveillance mission.
The Minotaur I rocket used for this mission is a four-staged, solid-fuel launch vehicle featuring repurposed motors from retired Minuteman rockets. It is capable of carrying up to 1,278 pounds into low Earth orbit.
“This was our second launch of a Minotaur rocket for the NRO from Wallops in the past 12 months,” Vice President of Launch Vehicles Rich Straka said in a statement. “Northrop Grumman is able to repurpose retired Peacekeeper and Minuteman propulsion, integrating them with company built solid rocket motors along with new subsystems for our Minotaur family of launch vehicles, allowing us to provide reliable, cost-effective and responsive access to space for our customers.”
The NROL-111 mission was procured under the OSP-4, a Department of Defense initiative to leverage the commercial small launch market. Under OSP-4, DoD customers can secure launches for payloads greater than 400 pounds within one to two years after a task order is issued. In 2019, the U.S. Air Force said it expected to launch 20 missions over a nine-year period using OSP-4.
“NRO is the best in the world at delivering space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to more than 500,000 government users working together to keep America safe,” said NRO Director Christopher Scolese in a statement. “NROL-111 is the 16th payload we put on orbit in 18 months to advance our mission of providing critical information to every member of the intelligence community, two dozen domestic agencies, our nation’s military, lawmakers and decision makers.”
This was NRO’s final launch of 2021, with its next one scheduled for 2022, when the agency kicks off the year with two launches from New Zealand with Rocket Lab in January and February. In total, the agency has six planned launches next year.
Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.