Rocket Lab launches secret payload from New Zealand for U.S. spy satellite agency

After waiting out high winds, Rocket Lab’s low-cost Electron rocket launched a top-secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office from New Zealand, halfway around the world from the U.S. spy satellite agency’s headquarters.

  • Liftoff for the “Birds of a Feather” mission took place at 6:56 p.m. PT today (3:56 p.m. local time Friday), nearly three hours after the day’s launch window opened. Rocket Lab’s team faced excessively high ground winds, but the breeze subsided in time for the company’s first liftoff of 2020 and its 11th mission to date. After stage separation, the rocket’s kick stage continued on its way to deploy the NROL-151 payload about an hour after launch.
  • The nature of the payload isn’t known — but back in 2018, the NRO’s director at the time, Betty Sapp, said the agency wanted “to explore what the tiny rocket marketplace can provide for us.” Although the launch took place on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, the California-based Rocket Lab is cleared for U.S. governmental and military launches. It has previously sent payloads to orbit for NASA, the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as well as for civilian satellite operators.
  • Eventually, Rocket Lab aims to try recovering its first-stage boosters for reuse, but this time around, it intended only to collect the data recorded by the booster during its guided re-entry and splashdown into the Pacific Ocean. The privately held company is definitely on its way up: It’s expanding to a second launch pad on Virginia’s Wallops Island, and is building yet another pad in New Zealand.

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