After a literal last-minute cancellation yesterday, SpaceX successfully launched and landed a Falcon 9 rocket earlier this morning in Cape Canaveral, Florida. While the details on most of SpaceX’s missions are very public, this one was purposely shrouded in mystery: the rocket was ferrying up a spy satellite, the NROL-76, for National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). It was SpaceX’s first big national security payload, and a sign of things to come as the aerospace company breaks into the shadowy world of military and national security launches.
Not much is known about the NRO’s mission, which makes sense, as it’s part of the U.S. intelligence community. In the past, the intelligence agency has flown its payloads into space on United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets.
Obviously, the enigmatic nature of today’s launch has fueled speculation about it.
“One clue about the payload is SpaceX’s plan to recover the Falcon 9 first stage at Cape Canaveral, a maneuver that requires significant leftover fuel and is only possible on missions with lightweight satellites or launches into relatively low orbits,” Stephen Clark at Spaceflight Now writes.
As Clark explains, heavier payloads, or those bound for higher orbits, either restrict where SpaceX can attempt a first stage landing to an ocean barge positioned downstream, or preclude a landing attempt altogether. This morning, SpaceX successfully landed the Falcon 9's first stage on solid ground—at Landing Zone 1 located adjacent to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Today might have marked SpaceX’s first military launch, but we can expect more in the future. Next year, the aerospace company will deliver GPS satellites for the Air Force, according to CNN.
While we might never know the details of this payload, the fact that cats were watching the launch should hint at something.