SpaceX will carry a payload into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in March 2017, marking the second known collaboration between the private space company and NRO.
The NRO develops and operates the United States’ spy satellites. SpaceX’s mission is scheduled to lift off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in March 2017 and has been designated NROL-76, but further information hasn’t been disclosed.
It’s unknown whether SpaceX will use a Falcon 9 or the heftier Falcon Heavy, which is expected to take its first flight at the end of this year after several days. The NRO mission is not currently listed on SpaceX’s launch manifest.
A NRO cubesat flew on a Falcon 9 along with another payload on a NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Demonstration Flight in December 2010. This appears to be the only other time SpaceX and the NRO worked in concert.
Although NRO has confirmed that NRPOL-76 will be conducted under a contract with SpaceX, SpaceX itself is referring questions back to the government agency.
“The NRO is anticipating the possibility of SpaceX supporting additional missions based on future competitions,” said Loretta DeSio, a NRO spokesperson.
This mission might have been mentioned before, at a hearing in 2013 of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. At that time, NRO Director Betty Sapp mentioned “a smaller mission” on contract with SpaceX said that SpaceX was expected to bid for NRO launches.
At the GEOINT conference, Sapp also discussed using artificial intelligence for data collection and building a large “ground system” to coordinate the information received from NRO’s satellites.