The classified National Reconnaissance Office‘s (NRO) NROL-129 mission launched successfully from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, known as MARS, at NASA’s Wallops flight facility — this was the agency’s third launch of 2020.
Of note is that this was the first flight of the Northrop Grumman built Minotaur IV rocket from this launch site and four payloads were lifted to orbit for the NRO. Northrop Grumman and the NRO teams had been preparing for this launch starting nearly two months ago, including the incorporation of the solid propellant engines, the payload encapsulation and all final processing. These actions were all completed in the new payload processing facility at Wallops, with final closeout activities occurring during the past weekend.
The launch occurred at Wallop’s Pad-0B, with a nearly instantaneous liftoff… full thrust for the Minotaur was attained within 0.2 seconds of engine ignition, far faster than could have been accomplished with a liquid propellant engine.
This mission carried four payloads designed, built and operated by the agency to support the overall national security mission by providing intelligence data to United States’ senior policy makers, the Intelligence Community and Department of Defense (DoD). The NROL-129 was the NRO’s 54th launch since 1996, with the next launch from NASA Wallops Flight Facility scheduled for Q2, CY2021.
Northrop Grumman‘s Minotaur rockets have completed 26 missions out of every major U.S. spaceport and have enjoyed 100 percent success. Under the U.S. Air Force Orbital/Suborbital Program-3 (OSP-3) contract, Northrop Grumman integrates, tests and provides space launch services for the Minotaur I, IV, V, VI and C family of rockets.
The OSP-3 contract is managed by the Rocket Systems Launch Program, which is part of U.S. Space Force and Missile Systems Center (SMC). OSP-3 expands on OSP-2 by continuing to use excess ICBM motors and includes potential Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle new entrant launch vehicles. The OSP-3 contract allows for an indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity with a $900M ceiling based on a firm fixed price service contract strategy.
The latest information regarding upcoming NRO launches include:
- NROL-44 and NROL 101, both from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Q3 of CY2020
- Vandenberg Air Force Base, Q4, CY2020
- NASA Wallops, Q2, CY2021
- The next launch from New Zealand is scheduled for Q2, CY2021
“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 Dr. Chris Scolese, the agency’s director. “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. I want to thank all of those involved across NASA, Northrop Grumman, Virginia Space, the Space and Missile Systems Center, and of course, the NRO for pulling together to make this launch a success.”
“The NRO is committed to providing resiliency in our operations through diversified launch options, and the success of NROL-129 is the culmination of years of steadfast collaboration with our civilian, military and commercial space partners to help us achieve that commitment,” said U.S. Air Force Colonel Chad Davis, director of the NRO’s Office of Space Launch. “We have a long record of developing, delivering, launching and operating the world’s most advanced space collection systems and capabilities in support of national security, and we’re happy to add our first dedicated launch from the Virginia Space Coast to that history.”