Rocket Lab launches mysterious spy satellites in 4th-ever US liftoff (video)

Rocket Lab launched from the U.S. for the fourth time ever on Thursday morning (March 21), sending mystery payloads aloft for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The NROL-123 mission — or "Live and Let Fly," as Rocket Lab called it — lifted off from the company's Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Thursday at 3:25 a.m. EDT (0725 GMT).

Like all 45 of Rocket Lab's previous orbital missions to date, NROL-123 employed Electron, a two-stage, 59-foot-tall (18 meters) rocket that gives small satellites dedicated rides to space. (The company is also developing a larger launch vehicle called Neutron, but it has yet to fly.)

Related: Facts and information about Rocket Lab

A Rocket Lab Electron rocket launches the NROL-123 mission for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office from Virginia on March 21, 2024.

A Rocket Lab Electron rocket launches the NROL-123 mission for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office from Virginia on March 21, 2024. (Image credit: Rocket Lab)

NROL-123 sent three research missions skyward, Rocket Lab representatives said during the company's launch webcast on Thursday. 

That's pretty much all we know about the payloads. The dearth of information is hardly surprising; the NRO builds and operates the United States' fleet of spy satellites and is generally tight-lipped about the nature and activities of those craft.

We do know, however, that the NRO awarded Rocket Lab the NROL-123 mission via a Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract. "RASR enables the NRO to explore new opportunities for launching small satellites through a streamlined, commercial approach," Rocket Lab officials wrote in a mission description.

The NROL-123 payloads were deployed into orbit about an hour after liftoff as planned. Rocket Lab didn't show that milestone, however; the company ended its launch webcast just under 11 minutes after launch, presumably at the request of the NRO. 

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NROL-123 was the fifth mission that Rocket Lab has launched for the NRO. The other four lifted off from the company's Launch Complex 1 (LC-1) on New Zealand's North Island. 

LC-1 has hosted the vast majority of Rocket Lab's orbital launches to date — 42 of 46 now, to be precise. The other four have lifted off from LC-2, which hosted its first Electron launch in January 2023.

Rocket Lab is working to make the Electron's first stage reusable; the company has recovered boosters from the sea on a number of previous missions and has even successfully reflown a used engine. But NROL-123 apparently didn't feature any recovery activities; the press kit and the launch webcast made no mention of them.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 3:45 a.m. ET on March 21 with news of successful liftoff, then again at 1 p.m. ET with news of satellite deployment.

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.