SpaceX launches first spy satellite for US military

The reusable rocket company headed by Elon Musk has successfully put the reconnaissance craft in space and then landed the booster back on land.

The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket carrying a spy satellite for the US military's national reconnaissance office lifts off. John Raoux / AP
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Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket company has launched a spy satellite – its first such mission for the US military – and landed the spacecraft’s booster on land.

It is the fifth time the firm has achieved that feat this year.

A 23-storey Falcon 9 rocket carrying the NROL-76 for the national reconnaissance office left the launchpad at 7:15am local time today from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch, originally planned for Sunday, was delayed 24 hours because of a problem with a sensor.

About nine minutes after lifting off, the rocket’s first stage returned to Earth and landed safely

“Launch and landing of the NRO spy satellite was good,” Mr Musk said on Twitter. “Tough call, as high altitude wind shear was at 98.6 per cent of the theoretical load limit.”

Today’s launch is the 34th mission for SpaceX and the fifth of more than 20 flights planned for this year.

The privately owned firm, based in Hawthorne, California, has a backlog of more than 70 missions, worth about US$10 billion.

The Falcon 9 rocket was awarded US air force certification in May 2015, breaking a monopoly held by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket designed from the ground up by SpaceX for the reliable and cost-efficient transport of satellites and SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft and “ was designed from the beginning for maximum reliability”, the company said.

“Falcon 9’s simple two-stage configuration minimises the number of separation events – and with nine first-stage engines, it can safely complete its mission even in the event of an engine shutdown,” it added.

The spacecraft lifted off from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), which dates back to the early 1960s. The facility supported the first Saturn V launch (Apollo 4), and many subsequent Apollo Moon missions, including Apollo 11 in July 1969. Beginning in the late 1970s, LC-39A was then modified to support Space Shuttle launches, hosting the first and last shuttle missions to orbit in 1981 and 2011, respectively.

In 2014, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease with Nasa for the use of historic LC-39A. Since then, extensive modifications to LC-39A have been made to support launches of both commercial and crew missions on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.

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