On the morning of July 15, people as far away as Maine and Georgia may be able to view a rocket launching from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility spaceport on the coast of Virginia. The rocket is due to launch at or around 9am, although the precise time could be changed due to the classified nature of the mission.
The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is using a Minotaur IV rocket to launch their classified payload into space. The U.S. Space Force (USSF) Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise Program is providing the launch services for this mission. According to the NRO, they work in conjunction with other Defense Department satellites to play a role in providing global communications, precision navigation, early warning of missile launches and potential military aggression, signals intelligence, and near real-time imagery to U.S. forces to support the war on terrorism and other continuing operations.
The 78 foot tall Minotaur IV rocket is about half the size of its sister rocket, the Antares, that manufacturer Northrop Grumman also launches from the Mid Atlantic spaceport for cargo missions to the International Space Station. The Antares stands at 139 feet tall.
The July 15 launch mission, named NROL-129, is the first USSF mission from Wallops and the NRO’s first dedicated launch from Wallops. The NRO has previously used Antares rockets and its Cygnus spacecraft to bring cubesats to space.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the NASA Visitor Center at Wallops will not be open for this mission and people are discouraged from going out in groups to watch the launch in-person. However, the launch could be visible across a large part of the the U.S. East Coast if the weather and sunlight cooperate. NASA Wallops plans to stream the launch on their YouTube channel, with online programming beginning at 8:30am. Some mission information, including photos, will be available following the launch on the NRO, NASA Wallops, and Northrop Grumman websites, and their respective Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts.
NROL-129 is the first Minotaur mission from Wallops since 2013 and the second orbital launch from the MARS launch pads in 2020. Minotaur rockets have been launched from Wallops for nearly 14 years. Northrop Gruman is planning to launch its larger Antares rocket in early September from Wallops; it’ll be bringing another round of cargo, supplies, and science to the International Space Station then.