SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Vandenberg SFB in April 2022. (SpaceX)

SPACE SYMPOSIUM 2024 — The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) plans to launch its first phase of the spy agency’s own proliferated orbital constellation next month, according to a top NRO official. 

The launch, dubbed NROL-146, is set to lift off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in May, NRO Principal Deputy Director Troy Meink told attendees at the Space Symposium conference today. Meink did not specify how many intel-gathering satellites will be launched, but did allude to “hybrid architectures” — underscoring previous comments from officials that the satellites would span more than one orbital plane.

Pointing to widespread efforts to field numerous satellites of various sizes across multiple orbits, Meink noted that the NRO’s own proliferation strategy “starts operationally for the NRO in about a month, early May we think right now.”

The spy agency has already sent up several demonstration satellites to “verify cost and performance,” Meink said, but next month’s launch “will be the first launch of an actual operational system.” Roughly “half a dozen” launches are planned this year alone, with more launches set to continue through 2028.

“This system will increase timeliness of access, diversity of communication paths and enhance our resiliency,” he said. 

NRO’s proliferated constellation will “quadruple” its number of birds in orbit, officials said last year, leading to a ten-fold increase in signals and imagery. The NRO’s proliferated constellation mirrors moves made by other agencies like the Space Force, which is pursuing large numbers of smaller satellites across orbits, something officials emphasize can increase coverage and lower risk of kinetic attacks on satellites. According to NRO Director Chris Scolese, the agency’s constellation will include both government and commercial satellites. 

An intelligence agency whose satellite operations are typically highly classified, the NRO also works closely with the Pentagon on space-based missions and shares intelligence. For example, the Space Force and NRO are jointly developing a new orbital capability to track ground-based moving targets.

NRO has been increasingly busy launching new satellites in recent years, Meink said, highlighting the value of cheaper launch costs, innovations driven by commercial technology and changing acquisition risk management. Within an hour of Meink’s speech, the NRO planned to launch NROL-70 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station — which he noted is the last planned launch of the Delta IV Heavy rocket and the Delta family altogether.   

After being scrubbed on March 28, the launch took place as planned today, lifting off at 12:53 pm ET. Typical of NRO launches, the payloads being blasted into orbit are classified.