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Rocket Lab lofts satellites for NRO, NASA, Australia

Rocket Lab’s low-cost Electron rocket lofted a bevy of small satellites into orbit tonight for the National Reconnaissance Office, NASA and a project backed by the Australian government and the University of New South Wales Canberra Space.

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Rocket Lab launches top-secret payload for NRO

After waiting out high winds, Rocket Lab’s low-cost Electron rocket launched a top-secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office from New Zealand, halfway around the world from the U.S. spy satellite agency’s headquarters.

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BlackSky revs up satellite operations

Global satellites
An artist’s conception shows BlackSky’s Global satellites in orbit. (BlackSky Illustration)

Seattle-based BlackSky is ramping up commercial operations of its satellite-based geospatial intelligence platform, thanks to newly announced deals with the National Reconnaissance Office and HawkEye 360, a company that has its own radio-sensing satellites in orbit.

Both deals were announced today in conjunction with the GEOINT Symposium in San Antonio.

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Spy satellite goes into orbit after monthlong delay

Delta 4 Heavy liftoff
United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 Heavy rocket lifts off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, sending the NROL-71 classified payload into space. (ULA Photo)

The National Reconnaissance Office’s latest classified spy satellite, NROL-71, was launched today by a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket into California’s sunny skies.

Today’s trouble-free countdown at Vandenberg Air Force Base came in contrast to the string of technical glitches that held up liftoff by more than a month.

The original launch date had been set for Dec. 7, but the technical issues — including concerns about a hydrogen leak on one of the engine sections — forced repeated delays. One memorable delay came just as a fireball was sighted over the region, sparking a momentary mystery.

Plenty of mystery still surrounds the NROL-71 mission: Outside experts suspect that the payload could be the first of what’s known as the Block 5 KH-11 spy satellites — next-generation cousins of the Hubble Space Telescope that are tasked with watching Earth rather than the heavens.

Neither United Launch Alliance nor the NRO is saying anything on that score.

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America’s spy-satellite agency cheers Jeff Bezos

NRO's Sapp and Jeff Bezos
Betty Sapp, director of the National Reconnaissance Office, sits in on a chat with Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon and Blue Origin. (NRO via Twitter)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos paid a visit to the National Reconnaissance Office this week — which fits right in with his plan to participate in national security space missions through his Blue Origin space venture.

Based on the readout from the NRO, the nation’s spy-satellite agency is also interested in what Bezos had to say about technological innovation.

“We cheer every new entrant who’s brave enough to go into the space business,” NRO Director Betty Sapp said during the March 12 meet-up, according to the agency’s Facebook posting.

“You’re obviously an innovator — like few others in the United States — and a real leader in space,” Sapp told Bezos. “Someone who could not only change the way we do business, but you, among others, have helped make space cool again, and that really resonates with us.”

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Systima’s pyrovalves debut on spy satellite launch

NROL-52 launch
United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket lofts a payload into space for the NROL-52 mission. (ULA Photo)

After more than a week of delays, the National Reconnaissance Office was glad to see its latest spy satellite go into orbit on Oct. 15 — and so was Kirkland, Wash.-based Systima Technologies.

When a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket launched the NROL-52 satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Systima’s pyrotechnic valves played a mission-critical role as part of the reaction control system on the rocket’s Centaur upper stage.

“This marks the first flight of Systima’s pyrovalves, RCS hardware, as well as the first time Systima has supported an Atlas 5 launch,” Taylor Banks, Systima’s controller and contracts manager, told GeekWire in an email. “Systima is thrilled to be part of the ULA team and would like to congratulate all that supported the successful mission.”

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SpaceX’s spy satellite launch marks milestone

SpaceX launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket rises from its Florida launch pad. (NRO via Twitter)

SpaceX launched a top-secret satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office today, then brought its Falcon 9 booster back for a spectacular touchdown at its Florida landing zone.

The NROL-76 launch marks a milestone as the first SpaceX launch fully dedicated to a classified mission, and the first since the U.S. Air Force cleared the company to take on national security space projects in 2015. The only precedent came back in 2010, when SpaceX launched a couple of experimental nanosatellites for the NRO as secondary payloads on a NASA demonstration mission.

Today’s liftoff from the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida officially ended United Launch Alliance’s monopoly on spy satellite launches.

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