US launches 4 secret spy satellites to orbit

Four more U.S. spy satellites just took flight.

A Northrop Grumman Minotaur IV rocket launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) in Virginia today (July 15) at 9:46 a.m. EDT (1346 GMT), carrying the NROL-129 mission to orbit for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and Space Force.

The NRO develops and operates the nation's fleet of spy satellites, the activities of which are generally classified. So we don't know exactly what the NROL-129 spacecraft will be doing up there, or even what their final orbital destinations are.

"NROL-129 supports NRO's overall national security mission to provide intelligence data to United States senior policy makers, the intelligence community and Department of Defense," NRO officials wrote in the mission's press kit.

The Minotaur IV stands 78 feet (24 meters) tall and consists of four stages. The lower three stages are powered by solid rocket motors sourced from decommissioned Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missiles. The fourth stage features Northrop Grumman's Orion 38 motor.

The Minotaur IV debuted in April 2010 and now has seven missions under its belt, all of them successful. Two of the seven were suborbital flights.

A Minotaur IV rocket launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the mission NROL-129 on July 15, 2020.

A Minotaur IV rocket launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the mission NROL-129 on July 15, 2020. (Image credit: NASA)

MARS is located on Virginia's Wallops Island, adjacent to NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, which ran MARS until 2003. Today, the spaceport is operated by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, with support from NASA Wallops.

NROL-129 is the NRO's first dedicated launch from the MARS-Wallops complex, as well as the first mission the site has hosted in partnership with the U.S. Space Force, which was officially created in December 2019. The Launch Enterprise Program of the Space Force's Space and Missile Systems Center provided launch services for NROL-129.

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

Mike Wall Senior Writer
Michael was a science writer for the Idaho National Laboratory and has been an intern at, 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.