Wednesday 20 March 2024


click map to enlarge

In the early hours of March 21, at 6:40 UTC, Rocketlab will launch an Electron rocket from Launch Complex 2 on Wallops, Virginia. The launch, designated NROL-123 and nicknamed "Live and Let Fly", will carry three small classified experimental payloads into Low Earth Orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) . 

Navigational Warnings suggest (initial) launch into a ~47.5 degree inclined orbit. The launch trajectory will pass very close to Bermuda (see map above). According to the Rocketlab Press kit, payload release is 54 minutes after launch, after approximately half an orbital revolution. As release is near the ascending node, it is possible that the kick stage will insert the payloads into somewhat different orbital inclination(s). Orbital altitude will likely be in the order of 600-700 km.

Little is known about the character of the payloads and the type of orbit does not give a clue either.  The NRO Press kit mentions that "NROL-123 will carry three collaborative research missions". The NRO Mission patch for NROL-123 features three hexagons with respectively a dragonfly, a sunfish (Mola), and wasps. The Rocketlab launch patch also similarly features a stylized dragonfly, a fish, and a wasp.


NROL-123 Mission patch (image: NRO)


The NRO Press kit says about these symbols that: 

"The dragonfly symbolizes energy, youthful exuberance, and accomplishment - representing the use of new technology. The position of it flying through the hexagon symbolizes a new frontier, new opportunity, and new perspective. The forward movement represents the critical path of the mission. The bees are based on the idea of “small but impactful” and represent the tremendous impact the program experiments will have on the NRO mission. The sunfish, or mola, nods toward the program". 

Which is all not very enlightening, especially where the meaning of the sunfish is concerned (and they should make up their mind if it are bees or wasps - they look like the latter to me).

Here is my very cautious estimate of the launch orbit. Orbital altitude is a bit of a guess, and there is some leeway in the orbital inclination possible too:

NROL-123                     for launch on 21 March 2024 06:40:00 UTC
1 70000U 24999A   24112.27777778  .00000000  00000-0  00000-0 0    05
2 70000 047.5000 101.3672 0002846 134.5077 326.5399 14.73474122    04

Below is the relevant Navigational Warning for this launch (see the map in top of the post for a plot of the indicated areas):

150916Z MAR 24
   210615Z TO 211030Z MAR, ALTERNATE 
   0615Z TO 1030Z DAILY 22 THRU 25 MAR
   A. 37-51.00N 075-30.00W, 37-52.00N 075-29.00W,
      37-56.00N 075-17.00W, 38-19.00N 074-35.00W,
      37-35.00N 074-11.00W, 37-15.00N 074-20.00W,
      37-23.00N 075-18.00W, 37-30.00N 075-29.00W,
      37-44.00N 075-30.00W, 37-48.00N 075-31.00W,
      37-49.00N 075-31.00W, 37-50.00N 075-31.00W,
      37-50.00N 075-31.00W.
   B. 35-02.00N 070-55.00W, 35-56.00N 069-54.00W,
      33-15.00N 065-46.00W, 32-19.00N 066-46.00W.
   C. 27-19.00N 061-16.00W, 27-54.00N 060-27.00W,
      24-27.00N 056-36.00W, 23-50.00N 057-26.00W.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 251130Z MAR 24.

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