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SpaceX launches US spy satellite, lands rocket in flawless Easter flight

SpaceX launched a clandestine spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and landed the returning rocket back on Earth today (April 17), acing a spaceflight twofer on Easter.

A two-stage Falcon 9 rocket carrying the NROL-85 spacecraft lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California today at 9:13 a.m. EDT (1313 GMT; 6:13 a.m. local California time)

The SpaceX rocket's two stages separated about 2.5 minutes later. The first stage headed back to Earth, making a vertical touchdown at Vandenberg's Landing Zone 4 roughly eight minutes after launch in what may be the ultimate bunny hop on the Easter Sunday holiday. SpaceX ended its live webcast of the launch just after the Falcon 9 landing at the NRO's request due to the mission's classified nature.

This was the second landing for this particular booster, which also helped to loft the NROL-87 spacecraft, another NRO spy satellite, from Vandenberg on Feb. 2, according to a SpaceX mission description. Today's flight marked the first time that an NRO satellite has flown on a used rocket, NRO officials said.

"It also marks our 114th overall successful recovery of a first-stage booster," John Insprucker, SpaceX's principal integration engineer, said after the landing.

Related: 8 ways SpaceX has transformed spaceflight

A used SpaceX Falcon rocket launches the classified NROL-85 spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Easter Sunday, April 17, 2022. (Image credit: SpaceX)

The upper stage of the Falcon 9 that launched today, meanwhile, continued powering its way to orbit, where it will ultimately deploy the NROL-85 satellite. We're not sure exactly when or where that deployment will take place — no surprise, given who booked today's flight.

The NRO operates the United States' fleet of spy satellites and generally reveals few details about the activities and payloads of these craft. NROL-85 is no exception; the NRO's mission press kit devotes very few words to the satellite, describing it simply as "a national security payload designed, built and operated by NRO."

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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket first stage stands atop its landing pad at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California after successfully launching the NROL-85 spy satellite into orbit on April 17, 2022.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket first stage stands atop its landing pad at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California after successfully launching the NROL-85 spy satellite into orbit on April 17, 2022. (Image credit: SpaceX)
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A stunning view of the Earth at dawn from space is seen in this still image from video taken by SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket first stage during the launch of the NROL-85 spy satellite on April 17, 2022.

A stunning view of the Earth at dawn from space is seen in this still image from video taken by SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket first stage during the launch of the NROL-85 spy satellite on April 17, 2022. (Image credit: SpaceX)

Today's launch was SpaceX's 14th of 2022 and its second in just over a week. On April 8, a Falcon 9 lofted Ax-1, the first-ever all-private crewed mission to the International Space Station. Ax-1's Dragon capsule is scheduled to depart the orbiting lab on April 19 and return to Earth with an ocean splashdown a day later.

And more SpaceX liftoffs are coming soon. A Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch a big batch of SpaceX's Starlink internet satellites on April 21 from Florida's Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, for example. 

And on April 23, the company will launch the Crew-4 mission for NASA, sending four professional astronauts toward the orbiting lab for a lengthy stay. Crew-4 will lift off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, which is next door to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.  

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Mike Wall
Mike Wall

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.