SpaceX launches classified US spy satellite, sticks rocket landing to cap record year

SpaceX launches classified US spy satellite, sticks rocket landing to cap record year

By Amy Thompson 2 days ago

That’s launch number 26 for SpaceX, its most ever in a year.

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX launched a clandestine U.S. spy  satellite into space for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)  Saturday (Dec. 19) , marking its 26th rocket of the year.

The mysterious payload, called NROL-108, lifted off from Pad 39A here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at  9 a.m. (1400 GMT) , during a planned three hour launch window.

A used two-stage Falcon 9 rocket carried the spy satellite aloft, as part of a government mission called NROL-108, marking SpaceX’s 26th launch of 2020, a new record for the company. Approximately nine minutes after liftoff, the booster’s first stage produced some dramatic sonic booms as it made its way back to terra firma, touching down at SpaceX’s Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) at the nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.  

Video: Watch SpaceX’s epic NROL-108 Falcon 9 rocket landing
Related: 
See the evolution of SpaceX’s rockets in pictures Image 1 of 2

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the classified NROL-108 spy satellite into orbit from Pad 39A of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Dec. 19, 2020.
(Image credit: SpaceX)
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the classified NROL-108 spy satellite into orbit from Pad 39A of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Dec. 19, 2020.
(Image credit: SpaceX)
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the classified NROL-108 spy satellite into orbit from Pad 39A of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Dec. 19, 2020.
(Image credit: SpaceX)
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the classified NROL-108 spy satellite into orbit from Pad 39A of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Dec. 19, 2020.
(Image credit: SpaceX)

Today’s flight was the fifth launch for this particular Falcon 9 first stage. The booster, designated B1059, previously lofted two commercial cargo missions to the International Space Station for NASA, delivered a batch of SpaceX Starlink satellites into orbit earlier this year, and most recently launched an Earth-observing satellite for Argentina

Falcon 9 blasted off into a clear blue sky Saturday morning, a stark change from Thursday’s launch attempt. Thick clouds shrouded the rocket from view that day and ultimately an issue with the rocket’s second stage forced SpaceX to postpone the launch. 

Several minutes after Falcon 9 leapt off the pad, the rocket’s first stage reappeared in the sky, with the iconic sonic booms you expect cracking overhead as the booster descended to the landing site. 

B1059 is only the second booster to land on the ground at the Cape (as opposed to a drone ship at sea) this year. (A third landed on land at Vandenberg Air Force base in California following the launch of the Sentinel-6 Earth-observing satellite for NASA in November.) In fact, it’s now the third trip to LZ-1 for this booster, as the veteran Falcon 9 first stage also returned to land after delivering the CRS-20 mission into orbit earlier this year.  

Related: Hitch a ride to space (and back) on a Falcon 9 in this awesome video

 A mystery payload 

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