SpaceX is entering the spy satellite business.
This weekend, the aerospace manufacturer will launch its first major payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, breaking a 10-year monopoly by the United Launch Alliance. The spy satellite NROL-76 will reportedly launch on a Falcon 9 between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Sunday at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many details about the satellite, including its size, how long it would take to deploy, the cost, and its final orbit. It’s also unclear if this will mark the beginning of an ongoing partnership between SpaceX and the NRO.
It is widely believed a Falcon 9 launched NRO payloads as as a part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Demonstration Flight 1 in 2010.
In 2014, the company's founder Elon Musk sued the Federal Government for unfair practices, claiming the Air Force improperly awarded non-competitive launch contracts for military satellites to ULA (a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin). The suit was settled in 2015, and according to Quartz, SpaceX secured winning bids for two Air Force contracts shortly after.
The launch will be broadcasted on Space.com courtesy of SpaceX. About 10 minutes after the launch, the first stage of the rocket will make its way back to Earth and attempt to land at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral. The broadcast will begin at 6:40 a.m. ET.