SpaceX Completes Tenth Launch of June, Delivers NROL-186 Classified Payload

B1081 belches fire and fury as she takes flight from Vandenberg at 8:14 p.m. PDT Friday. She has now flown one mission per month in the last five months of 2024. Photo Credit: SpaceX

An eight-times-used Falcon 9 booster took flight from Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., late last night, carrying what are thought to be the second of up to six full batches of Starshield military satellites for the U.S. Intelligence Community. Cloaked under the mission name of NROL-186—a National Reconnaissance Office designator—the mission rose from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at the mountain-ringed West Coast launch site at 8:14 p.m. PDT Friday, marking the 67th SpaceX flight of the year and its tenth of June.

A Starlink payload stack is readied for launch. The highly secretive Starshield network is believed to be closely modeled upon these small, flat-packed internet communications satellites. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Derived from SpaceX’s Starlink network of low-orbiting internet communications satellites, almost 6,700 of which have been deployed via 179 Falcon 9 launches between May 2019 and last week, Starshield is described as a purpose-built constellation to afford new “disruptive” military space capabilities to U.S. and allied governments. Built upon the Starlink infrastructure, the joint SpaceX/Northrop Grumman Corp. program—for which contracts worth $1.8 billion were awarded by the U.S. Government in 2021—also includes added functionalities of target tracking, optical and radio reconnaissance and missile early warning for customers including the Space Development Agency (SDA), the U.S. Space Force and the NRO.

It is believed that at least 12 prototype Starshield satellites flew as “rideshare” payloads on as many as five Falcon 9 missions since December 2020. Two test satellites were also aboard a Vandenberg flight last March, reportedly deployed into an orbit of 325 miles (525 kilometers), inclined 53.05 degrees to the equator.

Crew-7 launched at 3:27 a.m. EST last 26 August. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

The first “full” batch of 20 Starshield satellites were launched last month from Vandenberg, under the NRO mission descriptor of “NROL-146”, with last night’s flight marking the second of up to six batches. These satellites are believed to have been emplaced into orbits with a mean altitude of 190 miles (310 kilometers), inclined 69.7 degrees.

SpaceX on Thursday announced that it was targeting two opportunities to get this second Starshield mission—designated NROL-186—airborne: a first at 8:14 p.m. PDT Friday with a backup opportunity at 8 p.m. PDT Saturday. It was the 22nd Falcon 9 launch out of Vandenberg so far in 2024’s opening half, an impressive cadence which saw SpaceX fly four times from the West Coast in a single calendar for the first time in January, before wrapping up its first five-launch month in May.

B1081 approaches the end of her first-stage burn during last November’s CRS-29 launch. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Flying last night’s mission was a booster which entered service last August as a member of SpaceX’s East Coast fleet. B1081 went on to launch four times from Florida, most recently in February, before being trucked westwards to become the sixth Falcon 9 core in active operational service at Vandenberg.

She was first used to deliver Dragon Endurance and her Crew-7 quartet of NASA astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli, Denmark’s Andreas Mogensen of the European Space Agency (ESA), Satoshi Furukawa of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Russian cosmonaut Konstantin Borisov for their 6.5-month Expedition 69/70 increment at the International Space Station (ISS). Two additional launches last November and December delivered SpaceX’s CRS-29 Cargo Dragon for a month-long research stay at the station and a batch of Starlink satellites. And in February she launched NASA’s $805 million Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission to execute critical measurements of our planet’s oceans, atmosphere and climate on a global scale.

B1081 launches her first Starlink batch of payloads from the East Coast in December of last year. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

B1081 then was moved west later in February for the next phase of her career. Since early March, she has now flown four additional times, deploying the 53-payload Transporter-10 rideshare payload, a 21-satellite Starlink batch, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) EarthCARE mission to better comprehend the role of clouds and aerosols in reflecting incident solar radiation back into space and last night’s flight of NROL-186.

In a not unexpected move, little detail was provided by SpaceX of the flight milestones beyond the successful landing of B1081 on the deck of the West Coast-based Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Of Course I Still Love You”. The mission is thought to have included a customary pair of “burns” by the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage—a primary firing of six minutes, followed by a period of on-orbit coasting, then a brief, second burn of a few seconds—ahead of the NROL-186 deployment.

The veteran B1081 booster stands primed with PACE at Cape Canaveral. This was her final East Coast mission before she was transferred to Vandenberg in February for the second phase of her career. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Last night’s mission marks the tenth SpaceX launch of June, a month which has seen seven Starlink batches and over 150 discrete payloads flown, including the powerful Astra 1P geostationary communications satellite for Luxembourg-headquartered SES and last week’s triumphant return of the triple-barreled Falcon Heavy with the GOES-U weather and environmental monitoring sentinel, the fourth and final member of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R network.

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