If you looked south just after 9:46 AM EDT this morning, Wednesday, July 15th, 2020, you may have seen a glistening light streaming through the sky like a shooting star; and whether or not you were able to see it, you probably felt it. What you witnessed was the Minotaur IV rocket launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, just 45 minutes south of Ocean City. The launch surprised the wildlife, but it even surprised some fishermen who were unaware of the launch due to its classified content. They were in the safety zone, causing a delay in the launch time. NASA’s original launch window was scheduled to open at 9:00 AM. The rest of us deliberately set out to watch from our front row seats in a boat, approximately 15 miles south of Wallops Island, no matter how long it took. Once the authorities were able to clear the safety zone of boats, everybody waiting on the barrier beaches of Delmarva including Ocean City, Assateague, and Chincoteague were treated to a letter perfect launch.
Although it seemed small from our point of view, this Northrop Grumman vehicle stood 78-feet tall. According to NASA’s Keith Koehler, the rocket was made up of “three solid-fueled motors from decommissioned Peacekeeper ICBMs and a commercial solid rocket upper stage.” That means that these motors were taken from the U.S. Cold War era Peacekeeper intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles, so the launch of this rocket may have resembled what the launch of a nuclear missile would, theoretically, look like. However, this mission, known as NROL-129, and commissioned by the U.S. Space Force (USSF) Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise Program, had a distinct aim.
The mission of this Minotaur IV launch was to carry four classified payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) into orbit. According to Dr. Christopher Scolese, director of the NRO, this mission was a collaboration between the NRO and its industry partners to construct and utilize a system of satellites which will provide “revolutionary capabilities of value to the nation and our allies.” In other words, the success of this classified mission ensures four new spy satellites will be placed into low Earth orbit, which will use radar surveillance to provide valuable intelligence to the United States and allied governments around the world. The mission, although not highly publicized due to the sensitive nature of its content, was significant; and it was a success.
If you bore witness to this morning’s Minotaur IV rocket launch, you can consider yourself lucky, as Minotaur orbital launches do not frequently occur. While this was the second orbital launch in 2020, it was the first Minotaur launched from Wallops in seven years. Minotaur rockets have only been launched from Wallops for the past 14 years, with the last one occurring in 2013.
Wallops Island Before the Launch
All was calm and quiet for an additional 45 minutes while authorities tried to clear boats from the safety zone according to the Wallops Island Facebook page.