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SpaceX launches classified spy satellite for US military, lands rocket

SpaceX sent a U.S. spy satellite to orbit Wednesday (Feb. 2) in the second of three planned launches over a four-day stretch.

A two-stage Falcon 9 (opens in new tab) rocket topped with the National Reconnaissance Office's (NRO) NROL-87 payload lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California Wednesday at 3:27 p.m. EST (2027 GMT; 12:27 p.m. local California time). 

A little over eight minutes later, the Falcon 9's first stage came back to Earth for a pinpoint touchdown at SpaceX' (opens in new tab)s Landing Zone 4 at Vandenberg. The upper stage, meanwhile, continued carrying NROL-87 to orbit.

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It's not clear what the spy satellite will do up there; its activities and instruments are classified, like those of most NRO spacecraft. (The NRO operates the United States' fleet of spy satellites.) Indeed, upon the NRO's request, SpaceX ended today's launch webcast just after the first stage touched down.

The NROL-87 launch came just two days after SpaceX delivered the Italian CSG-2 Earth-observation satellite to orbit (opens in new tab) from Florida's Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. And the company plans to launch 49 of its Starlink internet satellites on Thursday (Feb. 3) from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, which is also on Florida's Space Coast.

Today's launch was SpaceX's fifth of 2022. The mission marked the company's 143rd orbital launch overall and its 105th booster landing. SpaceX (opens in new tab) commonly reuses Falcon 9 first stages, as well as those of its Falcon Heavy rocket, as a way to reduce launch costs and boost productivity. But the first stage that helped launch NROL-87 had not flown before, its brand-new status indicated by its clean, unblemished coat of white paint.

NROL-87 was the NRO's first launch of the year and its first with SpaceX under a $316 million National Security Space Launch contract that was signed in 2020, NRO officials said via Twitter (opens in new tab) on Tuesday (Feb. 1). It was also the first NRO mission to involve a rocket landing.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab)

Mike Wall
Mike Wall
Michael was a science writer for the Idaho National Laboratory and has been an intern at Wired.com, The Salinas Californian newspaper, and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. He has also worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz.