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SpaceX launches classified spy satellite as rapid-fire launch sequence continues

Two days after launching an Italian remote sensing satellite from Florida, SpaceX fired off another Falcon 9 rocket from California Wednesday, this one carrying a classified National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite. 

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket climbs away from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, Wednesday carrying a classified National Reconnaissance Office satellite. It was the California rocket builder's fifth launch in 27 days with another flight, this one from Florida, on tap Thursday. SpaceX webcast

The company plans another Florida launch Thursday to put 49 more Starlink internet satellites into orbit.

The rapid-fire launch pace — six orbit-class missions in 28 days — follows a record 31 Falcon 9 flights in 2021 with more than 50 expected this year, a cadence made possible by recovering, refurbishing and re-launching the rockets' first, or core stages.

For Wednesday's flight, the Falcon 9 used a brand new booster, which flew itself back to a picture-perfect touchdown on Landing Zone 4 near SpaceX's Vandenberg Space Force Base launch pad. The NRO plans to refly the booster on a downstream mission, tweeting "this gives this core the ability to launch not one, but two NRO payloads into #space!"

The mission got underway at 3:27 p.m. EST when the Falcon 9's nine first stage engines ignited with a roar, pushing the rocket away from pad 4 at the Space Force base northwest of Los Angeles.

A camera mounted on the Falcon 9 rocket shows the California coast dropping away as the booster climbed toward space (left) while a long-range tracker at Vandenberg Space Force Base shows the view from the ground. SpaceX webcast

The climb out of the lower atmosphere on a southerly trajectory went smoothly and the first stage fell away as planned about two minutes and 20 seconds after liftoff. The second stage carrying the NROL-87 satellite continued toward space, but as usual with classified missions, SpaceX ended its ascent commentary at that point.

But the company provided spectacular video of the first stage's return to the launch site, firing three of its engines to reverse course and then again to slow down for descent into the thick lower atmosphere.

A final single-engine firing lowered the stage to touchdown on four landing legs. It was SpaceX's 105th successful booster recovery, including 4 in California, 22 in Florida and 79 at sea.

Rocketcam (left) and a ground camera show the first stage a moment before touchdown at Landing Zone 4. SpaceX webcast

Next up: launch of 49 Starlink internet satellites Thursday from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SpaceX has launched 2,042 Starlinks to date as the company builds out a globe-spanning constellation of commercial broadband relay stations.

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