NROL-108 | Falcon 9 Block 5

Lift Off Time
(Subject to change)
December 19, 2020 14:00 UTC | 09:00 EST
Mission Name and what it is

NROL-108, a classified mission for the National Reconnaissance Office

Launch Provider
(What rocket company is launching it?)
SpaceX
Customer
(Who’s paying for this?)

National Reconnaissance Office

Rocket

Falcon 9 Block 5 B1059-5

Note: it turns out we have been notating booster flights incorrectly; internally SpaceX uses the dash.

Launch Location
Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), Kennedy Space Center, Florida
Payload mass
Classified, under 7,000 kg
Where are the satellites going?
Classified LEO
How is the weather?
The weather is currently 90% go for launch (As of December 18, 2020 – 13:00 UTC)
Will they be attempting to recover the first stage?
Yes
Where will the first stage land?
LZ-1
Will they be attempting to recover the fairings?
The fairings will be recovered from the water by GO Searcher and GO Ms. Tree.
Are the fairings new?
Yes
This will be the:
  • Fastest a booster has reached 5 flights, by far, at 380 days (Previous record: 524)
  • 1st USSF launch on reused Falcon 9
  • 1st USSF launch with no static fire
  • 5th Falcon 9 launch with no static fire
  • 103rd Falcon 9 launch
  • 49th re-flight of a booster
  • 21th re-flight of a booster in 2020
  • 4th 5th flight of a booster
  • 70th booster landing
  • 17th landing attempt on LZ-1
  • 20th consecutive landing (New record for SpaceX)
  • 26th launch for SpaceX in 2020
  • 2nd SpaceX launch on December 17 (JCSat-18 launched on Dec 17, 2019)
  • 29th SpaceX launch from LC-39A
  • 4th flight of B1059 in 2020
  • 110th orbital launch attempt of 2020
  • 100th successful launch of 2020
Where to watch

SpaceX official livestream

What’s this all mean?

SpaceX will launch the NROL-108 classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.  The Falcon 9 will lift off from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), from Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. Due to the classified nature of the payload, very little is known. However, the payload must have a mass of under 7,000 kg as it is a return to launch site (RTLS) mission. 

What is Falcon 9 Block 5?

The Falcon 9 Block 5 is SpaceX’s partially reusable two-stage medium-lift launch vehicle. Block 5 is the final iteration of the Falcon 9; the goal is to apply all the lessons learned from 56 previous Falcon 9 pre-Block 5 flights into a human-rated reusable rocket. The Falcon 9 contains 3 main components: a reusable first stage, an expendable second stage, and a reusable fairing.

falcon 9
Falcon 9 Block 5 launching on the GPS Block III SV03 mission (Credit: SpaceX)

Block 5 updates:

SpaceX introduced a lot of changes on Block 5, allowing it to become the crewed-launching reusable rocket that we know today. To start, the Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessel (COPV) had to undergo a complete redesign. NASA mandated the COPV redesign, as it had been the cause of both of the Falcon 9 failures: AMOS-6 and CRS-7.

Alongside with certification for human spaceflight, Block 5 came with a number of other major changes. To increase the amount of flight each booster could handle, and decrease the turnaround time, SpaceX reinforced the landing legs, upgraded the grid fins, and added a carbon fiber interstage. They also added heat resistant external paint and upgraded the engines. For more information about the changes in Block 5, and the other Blocks of the Falcon 9, check out this video by the Everyday Astronaut:

Tim Dodd explains the differences between the Falcon 9 versions. (Click image to watch) (Credit: Andrew Taylor)

Falcon 9 Booster B1059

The booster supporting this mission is B1059. This booster has already flown four times. Its maiden flight was on the CRS-19 mission, which launched on December 5, 2019. It’s second flight was on the CRS-20 mission, which launched on March 7, 2020. Its third and fourth flight was on Starlink V1.0 L8 and on the SAOCOM 1B mission, launching on June 13, 2020 and August 30, 2020 respectively. As this is the boosters 5th flight, its designation will change to B1059.5. 

Following stage separation, the Falcon 9 will conduct 3 burns. These burns will softly touch down the booster at LZ-1.

Fairing Reuse

SpaceX is the first entity ever that recovers and reflies its fairings. The recovery vessels, Go Ms. Tree and Go Ms. Chief, will most likely attempt to recover the fairing halves. After being jettisoned, the two fairing halves will use cold gas thrusters to orientate themselves as they descend through the atmosphere. Once at a lower altitude, they will deploy parafoils to help them glide down to a soft landing for recovery. 

11 comments
  1. Can’t believe SN9 almost fell over…wonder how long this will set back next test. Had fun watching your live stream of SN8. Love your enthusiasm!

  2. Thanks for providing all of the details on the objective of each mission and more importantly who is paying for it.
    Also great you provide details on the reusability aspect of the sum of parts which is key.

  3. Another stat – Fourth time a booster has been flown four times in 2020. If successful – 100th successful orbital launch in 2020.

    1. Most of the time, SpaceX does a static fire before every launch, meaning the light the engines for about 3 seconds, to make sure all the fuel tanks and engines are working properly. As mentioned, this is the 5th SpaceX skipped this step.

  4. Since the payload was for the NRO, the 2nd stage couldn’t be shown. This allowed SpaceX to show the telemetry for the returning 1st stage. Did anyone notice that the speed of the booster increased some after the entry burn, but started decreasing before the landing burn started? Does anyone know why this happens? Is this just due to drag from the denser atmosphere?

    1. I think so, it started about the height of 20 km above the ground. The velocity there was enormous, about 2 Mach so the drag has to be very high. There was also apparent the vibration of the rocket body. What I have mentioned is a strange object (UFO :)) at the left side of the view in T=4:40. What it should be?

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