SpaceX successfully launched a secretive spy satellite toward orbit on Monday morning, following a slight delay.
Elon Musk's commercial rocket company was supposed to launch the spy satellite on Sunday, but a sensor problem postponed the launch. The operation went smoothly on Monday, marking SpaceX's first flight for the U.S. Department of Defense. The successful liftoff was from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
SpaceX Launches Spy Satellite And Successfully Lands Rocket
The operation marked SpaceX's 34th mission in total and its fifth one this year, but the first one for the Defense Department. This marks a major milestone for the company as Musk has long sought to work with the DOD.
SpaceX Breaks ULA Monopoly
At the same time, the launch also broke a decade-old monopoly the United Launch Alliance, a collaboration between Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, had for launching U.S. military and national security satellites.
After 10 years of ULA exclusivity, it's a huge win for SpaceX that a Falcon 9 rocket finally broke that monopoly and launched a classified National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite into orbit.
The SpaceX Falcon 9's first-stage engines fired up at 7:15 a.m. EDT and successfully launched the rocket from Florida's Space Coast, putting on an exciting show for tourists and residents in the area.
Roughly two minutes and 20 seconds later, after pushing through the lower atmosphere, the first-stage engines shut down and the stage detached, leaving the single Merlin engine fueling the Falcon 9's second stage to continue the launch to space. The second stage pushed the satellite into the target orbit, but no details regarding the trajectory are available because of the secretive nature of the mission.
Broadcast Cut Short Because Of NRO Secrecy
The privately owned company continued to broadcast the rocket's return flight and landing at SpaceX's nearby Landing Zone 1, where the first stage executed a successful touchdown.
The tracking cameras on the ground and on the side of the returning rocket provided dramatic live video footage as the Falcon 9 descended through clouds. SpaceX engineers watching the landing stream at the company's mission control center in Hawthorne, California started cheering and applauding when the rocket successfully landed and the engine shut down, creating an exciting moment.
Split screen shot of Falcon 9 first stage as it returns to Earth and lands at Landing Zone 1. pic.twitter.com/5hlwTOTGKa
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 1, 2017
"Launch and landing of the NRO spy satellite was good," said Musk. "Tough call, as high altitude wind shear was at 98.6 percent of the theoretical load limit."
The payload, dubbed NROL-76, remains classified and SpaceX offered no information regarding the type of surveillance the spy satellite will perform, how large it is, or where exactly in orbit it's located.
The NRO simply said it conducts surveillance to detect potential threats to the United States by keeping track of terrorist activity and monitoring other countries' nuclear weapons development.