SpaceX has wrapped up 2020 with a successful mission that deployed secretive spying apparatus in low Earth orbit.
Mission NROL-108 lifted off from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 9 a.m. ET on Saturday, December 19. SpaceX used its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket for the trip, carrying a U.S. spy satellite to orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office.
It was SpaceX’s 26th mission of the year, setting a new annual launch record for the company led by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.
SpaceX later posted some cool footage (below) of the launch and landing, with the liftoff captured from a helicopter flying nearby.
Footage from a helicopter of Falcon 9‘s 26th and final launch of 2020 pic.twitter.com/Ol90RiJvcP
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 20, 2020
Just over eight minutes later, remote and point-of-view cameras captured the return of the rocket’s first-stage booster inside a landing zone at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, close to the launch site. This was the 70th booster landing in total for SpaceX.
Falcon 9’s first stage has landed on Landing Zone 1 pic.twitter.com/mR18Qv3GoC
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 19, 2020
As the payload included surveillance equipment for intelligence purposes, few details have been released about Saturday’s launch. It’s not even clear if the deployment involved one satellite or several.
This was the fifth launch for this particular Falcon 9 first-stage booster. It previously supported the launch of SpaceX’s 19th and 20th cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station, as well as a Starlink mission, and the SAOCOM 1B mission at the end of August that deployed an Earth-observation satellite for Argentina.
Saturday’s flawless mission was a further demonstration of the reliability of SpaceX’s reusable transportation system designed to dramatically reduce the cost of access to space.
SpaceX’s busy year, which also saw its Crew Dragon spacecraft fly astronauts to the space station for the first time in two separate missions, comes despite the myriad of challenges presented by the highly disruptive COVID-19 pandemic. While the virus impacted some international space missions this year, SpaceX managed to continue with its work while observing safety guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within its team and beyond.
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