SpaceX launches top secret space mission for US military

SpaceX is performing a new transport on behalf of the US military. The flight profile is classified, but the most likely hypothesis is that it is two signals intelligence collection satellites.

The American secret services will very soon have a new tool to scrutinize what is happening all over the world. A new spy satellite due to take off during the weekend of April 16 and 17, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. It is SpaceX which will ensure the transport of the device, thanks to a Falcon 9 rocket.

This national security mission, identified by the code name NROL-85 (National Reconnaissance Office Launch), will be the fourth carried out by the American company on behalf of the United States. The other three were in 2017 (NROL-76), 2020 (NROL-108) and earlier this year (NROL-87). All shots have been successful so far.

The takeoff of the NROL-76 mission, in 2017. // Source: SpaceX

The National Reconnaissance Office is one of many agencies belonging to the large intelligence family of the United States, alongside well-known structures such as the FBI, CIA, NSA, DEA. Attached to the Pentagon, the NRO manufactures and manages the fleet of spy satellites and provides analyzes based on the information collected by these devices.

Like all such satellites, NROL-85’s payload information is classified. We know that the contract between SpaceX and the Air Force was announced at the beginning of 2019: three missions (AFSPC-44, NROL-85 and NROL-87) are entrusted to SpaceX and three others (SBIRS GEO-5, SBIRS GEO-6 and Silent Barker) to its competitor, United Launch Alliance (ULA).

SpaceX does not communicate on the content of the mission, contenting itself with describing the expected stages of the mission (countdown, flight profile, deployment, return of the first stage of the rocket, etc.). The NRO is also evasive, describing only in its press kit the meaning of the mission crest, a small kitten whose reflection in the water shows a tiger.

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The kitten that becomes a tiger when needed. // Source: NRO

Depending on the characteristics of the satellite, very different uses are possible: it can be used for optical reconnaissance, secure telecommunications, surveillance and electromagnetic listening or even radar control. These are the most common missions that can be entrusted to military and spy satellites.

Satellites to spy on enemy ships

If the mission is classified to avoid giving an indication of the role of the satellite (the altitude, which is not given by SpaceX nor the NRO, allows for example to have an idea of ​​its characteristics, just like the weight, which is also secret, because it can indicate the number of satellites on board), specialists in the space community suggest a lead.

The hypothesis behind the NROL-85 mission is that it is to send two space reconnaissance and intelligence satellites, as part of the Intruder program, a name given to a constellation of satellites operating in low Earth orbit, to the around 1,000 to 1,100 kilometers above sea level. This firing would embark the Intruder 13A and 13B copies.

The Intruder program enters into a naval ocean surveillance system (NOSS – Naval Ocean Surveillance System), which has the task of monitoring the activity of the military fleets of other powers, such as China, Russia or Iran. This tracking is done through the capture of radio signals that warships emit by communicating or by using their radars.

John C.Murphy
On the left, the Moon. On the right, a NOSS trio. // Source: John C. Murphy

This signals intelligence for the United States Navy is done by triangulating ships with satellites operating in trios or pairs, for the most recent generation — which is why the NROL-85 flight has only two craft. The third generation, launched since 2001, already has sixteen satellites.

France also has an equivalent program. This is Ceres (acronym for Space Electromagnetic Listening and Intelligence Capability), a project that has been deployed since November 2021 and includes three satellites. France is in the process of more generally renewing its fleet of intelligence satellites, with the CSO, Iris and Céleste programs.

As for SpaceX, the next launch on behalf of the American defense is scheduled for the third quarter of 2023. It will be the NROL-69 mission.

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