Falcon 9 launches mystery NRO satellite on mission NRO L-85…but shouldn’t there have been two? Did subsat separation fail?

by | Apr 19, 2022 | Launches, Military space, Satellites, Seradata News, SpaceX

SpaceX launched a Falcon 9v1.2FT Block 5 rocket from Vandenberg, California, USA, at 1313 GMT on 17 April, carrying a secret payload under the mission name NRO L-85 for the US National Reconnaissance Office.

The reusable first stage of the Falcon 9 vehicle (B1071 on its second flight) successfully landed back on shore at Landing Zone 4 at Vandenberg.

Freeze-frame of webcam footage during landing of B1071 reusable stage flown on Falcon 9 flight of NRO L-85. Courtesy: SpaceX

The mission was believed to be carrying a pair of Naval Ocean Surveillance System-3 (NOSS-3) Intruder-type signals intelligence spacecraft, dubbed Intruder 13A and 13B, with the latter as a subsatellite deployed after launch.

However, to date, only one spacecraft, codenamed, USA 327, has been identified as separating from the launch vehicle, suggesting either that something may have gone wrong with the deployment of the usual sub-satellite, or that it is another mission type entirely. Amateur trackers have estimated that USA 327 is in a 1206 x 1007 km, 63.4 degree orbit which is close to standard for a NOSS mission.

Update on 21 April 2022: Since the launch there has been an unusual delay in signals being received from the spacecraft – another indication that a separation failure may have occurred.

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