SpaceX launches Israeli reconnaissance satellite, lands rocket in final flight of 2022

SpaceX rang out 2022 a few days early with a brilliant nighttime launch from California to haul an Israeli reconnaissance satellite into orbit. 

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the Israeli Earth-imaging satellite EROS C-3 into orbit from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California late Thursday night (Dec. 29), releasing the payload into orbit about 15 minutes after leaving Earth. Liftoff occurred at 11:38 p.m. PST at the launch site (2:38 a.m. EST/0738 GMT), with the Falcon 9's first stage returning to land at a nearby SpaceX pad about 8 minutes into the flight.

"This is our 61st and final SpaceX launch of 2022," Jesse Anderson, SpaceX's production and engineering manager, said during a live webcast. 

EROS C-3, short for Earth Resources Observation Satellite C3, is an Earth observation satellite built to enable "defense and intelligence organizations to conduct operations under complete confidentiality and data protection," according to its Israel-based maker ImageSat International (opens in new tab). It cost about $186 million, according to Spaceflight Now (opens in new tab).

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The first-ever EROS satellite, EROS A, was launched in 2000 and reentered Earth's atmosphere in 2006. Little information is available about the active members of the fleet (EROS-B, EROS-C1 and EROS C2), presumably due to security concerns.

EROS-C3 has a resolution of about one foot (30 centimeters) for greyscale images and two feet (60 cm) for multispectral imagery, according to Everyday Astronaut.  By the end of the decade, it will form part of a quartet of EROS satellites that will work alongside two synthetic aperture radar satellites.

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SpaceX's Falcon 9 launched retrograde to (against) the Earth's rotation and to deploy EROS-C3 in low Earth orbit. The first stage then executed three burns (a boost back maneuver, entry burn and landing burn) to touch down on land at SpaceX's Landing Zone 4 at Vandenberg.

This was the 11th flight for the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage. It previously flew two astronaut flights for NASA, two Starlink internet satellite missions and six assorted uncrewed commercial and NASA missions. Its successful landing marked the 160th landing of a SpaceX's orbital rocket, including both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters. 

The EROS C-3 launch also marked SpaceX's second launch in as many days. On Wednesday (Dec. 28), the company launched its first Gen2 Starlink internet satellites from Cape Canaveral Space Force Base in Florida, delivering 54 of the next-generation Starlinks into orbit. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage booster would land on a drone ship in the Pacific Ocean. It launched from and landed at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. 

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace