NROL-87

NROL-87 | Falcon 9 Block 5

Lift Off Time
February 2, 2022 – 20:27:26 UTC | 12:27:26 PST
Mission Name
NROL-87, a classified mission for the National Reconnaissance Office
Launch Provider
(What rocket company launched it?)
SpaceX
Customer
(Who paid for this?)
National Reconnaissance Office
Rocket
Falcon 9 Block 5, booster B1071
Launch Location
Space Launch Complex 4 (SLC-4E), Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, USA
Payload mass
Due to the classified nature of this payload, no payload mass can be specified
Where did the satellite go?
Sun synchronous orbit
Did they attempt to recover the first stage?
Yes
Where did the first stage land?
Landing Zone 4 (LZ-4)
Did they attempt to recover the fairings?
Yes
Were these fairings new?
Yes, both fairing halves were new
This was the:
– 1st NRO launch of 2022
– 139th Falcon 9 launch
– 105th booster landing
– 5th SpaceX launch of 2022

– 3rd Return to Launch Site (RTLS) mission in 2022
– 9th orbital launch attempt of 2022
(9th successful)
Where to watch
Official replay

How Did It Go?

SpaceX successfully launched the NROL-87 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4 (SLC-4E), Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. This was the first launch of the B1071 booster, which successfully touched down on Landing Zone 4 (LZ-4) 8 minutes after launch.

NROL-87 Launch
Lift off of NROL-87 (Credit: SpaceX)

NROL-87

Due to the classified nature of the payload, very little is known. However, historically most NRO satellites have had similar purposes, such as surveillance and reconnaissance for the United States, as well as testing of new technology. 

Falcon 9 Block 5

The Falcon 9 Block 5 is SpaceX’s partially reusable two-stage medium-lift launch vehicle. The vehicle consists of a reusable first stage, an expendable second stage, and, when in payload configuration, a pair of reusable fairing halves.

First Stage

The Falcon 9 first stage contains 9 Merlin 1D+ sea level engines. Each engine uses an open gas generator cycle and runs on RP-1 and liquid oxygen (LOx). Each engine produces 845 kN of thrust at sea level, with a specific impulse (ISP) of 285 seconds, and 934 kN in a vacuum with an ISP of 313 seconds. Due to the powerful nature of the engine, and the large amount of them, the Falcon 9 first stage is able to lose an engine right off the pad, or up to two later in flight, and be able to successfully place the payload into orbit. 

The Merlin engines are ignited by triethylaluminum and triethylborane (TEA-TEB), which instantaneously burst into flames when mixed in the presence of oxygen. During static fire and launch the TEA-TEB is provided by the ground service equipment. However, as the Falcon 9 first stage is able to propulsively land, three of the Merlin engines (E1, E5, and E9) contain TEA-TEB canisters to relight for the boost back, reentry, and landing burns.

Second Stage

The Falcon 9 second stage is the only expendable part of the Falcon 9. It contains a singular MVacD engine that produces 992 kN of thrust and an ISP of 348 seconds. The second stage is capable of doing several burns, allowing the Falcon 9 to put payloads in several different orbits. 

For missions with many burns and/or long coasts between burns, the second stage is able to be equipped with a mission extension package. When the second stage has this package it has a grey strip, which helps keep the RP-1 warm, an increased number of composite-overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) for pressurization control, and additional TEA-TEB.

Falcon 9 Block 5, inflight
Falcon 9 Block 5 launching on the Starlink V1.0 L27 mission (Credit: SpaceX)

Falcon 9 Booster

The booster supporting NROL-87 is B1071-1. This was the first flight of this booster.

Following stage separation, the Falcon 9 conducted 2 burns. These burns allowed the booster to softly touch down on SpaceX’s Landing Zone 4 (LZ-4).

Falcon 9 Fairings

The Falcon 9’s fairing consists of two dissimilar reusable halves. The first half (the half that faces away from the transport erector) is called the active half, and houses the pneumatics for the separation system. The other fairing half is called the passive half. As the name implies, this half plays a purely passive role in the fairing separation process, as it relies on the pneumatics from the active half. 

Both fairing halves are equipped with cold gas thrusters and a parafoil which are used to softly touch down the fairing half in the ocean. SpaceX used to attempt to catch the fairing halves, however, at the end of 2020 this program was canceled due to safety risks and a low success rate. On NROL-87, SpaceX will attempt to recover the fairing halves from the water with their recovery vessel NCR Quest.

In 2021, SpaceX started flying a new version of the Falcon 9 fairing. The new “upgraded” version has vents only at the top of each fairing half, by the gap between the halves, whereas the old version had vents placed spread equidistantly around the base of the fairing. Moving the vents decreases the chance of water getting into the fairing, making the chance of a successful scoop significantly higher.

Rocket section adapted from Trevor Sesnic

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