The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:15am local time near the famous NASA launch site. Just nine minutes later, the rocket’s main section touched back down on the launch pad.
Split screen shot of Falcon 9 first stage as it returns to Earth and lands at Landing Zone 1. pic.twitter.com/5hlwTOTGKa— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 1, 2017
Today’s launch was the first time the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has entrusted anyone other than the United Launch Alliance (ULA) with one of its top-secret payloads.
The NRO is an agency within the US Defense Department that operates its fleet of spy satellites.
ULA is a joint venture by Lockheed Martin and Boeing that was launched in 2006 and has held a monopoly on US national security launches ever since. Until now.
Today’s successful launch may mark a new era for SpaceX, as such sensitive operations involving satellites believed to monitor nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking operations and terrorist activities, are undoubtedly incredibly lucrative for the company.
Launch and landing of the NRO spy satellite was good. Tough call, as high altitude wind shear was at 98.6% of the theoretical load limit. pic.twitter.com/nBzBMNdjBp— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 1, 2017
Following a protracted legal battle with the US Air Force dating back to 2014, SpaceX finally broke ULA’s monopoly on military contracts after reaching an agreement with the USAF to open up the bidding process in exchange for dropping its lawsuit.
Last year, SpaceX won an $86 million contract with the USAF, with one launch now scheduled in both 2018 and 2019.
Today’s operation was a far more secretive affair than usual, however, given the sensitive nature of the payload.
Details of the launch were sparse and shrouded in secrecy with no information available on the size, weight, instruments on board or indeed the final orbit of the payload.
In addition, the specifics of the arrangement itself are largely unknown: no bid to operate the launch has been confirmed; and it has yet to be established whether the launch was a once-off or whether the relationship will continue in the future and no estimates of the cost to the NRO have emerged.
The full video of the launch is available below.
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