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Rocket Lab's 1st launch of 2020 is for the National Reconnaissance Office, the US spysat agency

Rocket Lab test fires the Electron rocket first stage for the "Birds of a Feather" launch of the NROL-151 satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office at Launch Complex 1 head of a January 2020 launch from Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand's North Island.
Rocket Lab test fires the Electron rocket first stage for the "Birds of a Feather" launch of the NROL-151 satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office at Launch Complex 1 head of a January 2020 launch from Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand's North Island. (Image credit: Rocket Lab)

The small-satellite launch company Rocket Lab (opens in new tab) will fly its first mission for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) next week, kicking off a busy 2020 that also includes plans for a new launchpad and headquarters. 

Rocket Lab's first Electron launch of the year will be NROL-151, a previously unannounced flight for the clandestine NRO, the U.S. spy satellite agency. The mission, which Rocket Lab has nicknamed "Birds of a Feather," will fly from the company's Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand's North Island. Liftoff is set for Friday, Jan. 31, local time in New Zealand (Thursday, Jan. 30 EST).

“We are honored the NRO has selected Rocket Lab as the launch provider for this dedicated mission," Lars Hoffman, Rocket Lab's senior vice president for Global Launch Services, said in a statement Monday (opens in new tab) (Jan. 20). "The Electron launch vehicle is perfectly positioned to provide the kind of rapid and responsive access to space that puts the NRO in complete control over their own launch schedule and orbital requirements."

The 57-foot-tall (17 meters) Electron booster is designed to launch satellites weighting up to 500 lbs. (227 kilograms) into orbit for about $5 million per flight.

Video: Watch Rocket Lab's latest Electron rocket launch! (opens in new tab)
Related: 
Rocket Lab and Its Electron Booster (Photos) (opens in new tab)

The NRO tapped Rocket Lab to launch NROL-151 under the agency's Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) program. The mission is the first for the new program, "which enables our exploration of new launch opportunities by providing a streamlined, commercial approach for launching smallsats," NRO officials wrote on Twitter Jan. 20 (opens in new tab).

"Under this approach, RASR helps us pursue the use of both large & small satellites to create an integrated architecture that provides global coverage to answer a wide range of intelligence questions," NRO officials added (opens in new tab).

NROL-151 is the NRO's first spy satellite launch from foreign soil, according to Spaceflight Now (opens in new tab).

Rocket Lab's big year

Rocket's NROL-151 launch comes amid a growth spurt of sorts for the Huntington Beach, California-based company. 

In December, Rocket Lab opened its first U.S. launch site (opens in new tab), called Launch Complex 2, at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia. The company plans to launch its first Electron missions from U.S. soil in April. 

Soon after the Launch Complex 2 opening, Rocket Lab broke ground on a third launchpad, this one located next to the company's original pad on Mahia Peninsula, in order to expand its ability to launch missions quickly. Rocket Lab is calling the new site at its Launch Complex 1 "Pad B."

"Responsive access to space is about more than the rocket – it also requires responsive launch pads," Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said in a statement last month. "With the opening of Launch Complex 2 in the U.S. and now the addition of Pad B at Launch Complex 1, Rocket Lab operates three individual launch pads to provide unmatched launch frequency and responsiveness for small satellites."

Earlier this month, Rocket Lab also began work on a new headquarters in Long Beach, California, which will also serve as its U.S. mission control center and add to the company's manufacturing capacity. 

"Long Beach is an ideal location for our team; it has a vibrant space community, it's close to many of our suppliers and offers room to grow as our operations do," Beck said in a Jan. 14 statement (opens in new tab). "The City of Long Beach has been incredibly welcoming, and we look forward to working with them to continue growing the local space economy."

Reusing rockets

But wait, there's more. 

Rocket Lab is also testing technology to recover and reuse the first stage of its Electron rockets in order to help the company's booster production.

In 2019, Beck unveiled an ambitious plan to recover Electron boosters in midair by equipping the rocket stages with thrusters and a parachute to slow their descent. They would then be captured by a helicopter (opens in new tab) and taken to a recovery ship for eventual reuse. 

Last month, Rocket Lab successfully guided an Electron back to Earth (opens in new tab) using thrusters and a new guidance and navigation system. The rocket was not equipped with a parachute, but did survive its reentry as Rocket Lab had hoped. The booster was destroyed as expected when it impacted the ocean. 

The upcoming launch will also perform that reentry maneuver, with a chase plan collecting telemetry from the rocket as it reenters the atmosphere and crashes into the ocean. 

"It's not about cutting costs at all, to be honest," Beck told Space.com in September. "It's about increasing production. That's the sole reason we're doing it."

The "Birds of a Feather" launch for NROL-151 will mark Rocket Lab's eleventh mission since operations began in 2018. The company has launched 47 satellites into orbit over its last 10 missions.

Email Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com or follow him @tariqjmalik. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Instagram.

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Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter.