The SpaceX company launches a secret U.S. spy satellite and caps off a record year with rocket landing

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SpaceX put a secret U.S. spy satellite into space Saturday (Dec. 19) for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), marking its 26th launch.

The mystery payload, named NROL-108, lifted-off at 9 a.m. (1400 GMT) from pad 39A here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center during a planned three-hour launch window.

A used Falcon 9 two-stage rocket carried the spy satellite into the air as part of a government mission called NROL-108. This was SpaceX’s 26th launch of 2020, a new record for the company. Approximately nine minutes after liftoff, the rocket’s first stage produced a dramatic sonic boom as it made its way back to the ground and touched down at SpaceX’s Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) at nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The flight today was the fifth launch for this particular Falcon 9 first stage. The booster, designated B1059, has previously performed two commercial cargo missions to the International Space Station for NASA, launched a series of SpaceX Starlink satellites into orbit earlier this year and most recently launched an Earth observation satellite for Argentina.

Falcon 9 lifted off Saturday morning under bright blue skies – a marked change from Thursday’s launch attempt. Heavy clouds obscured the rocket’s view that day, and eventually a problem with the rocket’s second stage pushed SpaceX to postpone the launch.

Several minutes after Falcon 9 lifted off the launch pad, the rocket’s first stage reappeared in the sky with the iconic sonic boom expected as the rocket descends to the landing pad.

The B1059 is only the second booster to land on the ground at the Cape this year (as opposed to a drone at sea). (A third landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California after the launch of the Sentinel-6 Earth observation satellite for NASA in November.) In fact, this is the third trip to LZ-1 for this launch vehicle, as the veteran Falcon 9 first stage also returned to land after carrying the CRS-20 mission into orbit earlier this year.

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