In September 2016, a rocket carrying Amos 6 — the most advanced Israeli communications satellite ever made — exploded on the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The $200 million Israeli satellite was destroyed two days before it was scheduled for launch, the Jerusalem Post reported.
The Israel Space Agency said the explosion happened during the fueling of the missile launcher, leading to the satellite’s total loss.
The Amos-6 satellite, owned by the Israel’s Ramat Gan-based Spacecom Ltd., was supposed to help Facebook bring Internet connectivity to Africa, and TV service to providers in Europe and the Middle East.
The satellite was set to launch on Elon Musk’s Tesla-owned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which exploded on its pad. Witnesses reported seeing a fireball, hearing multiple explosions, feeling shock waves in buildings several miles away at Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX is one of the companies that launches cargo ships to the International Space Station.
In April 2017, SpaceX got some light shone on its standing in the competitive world of lucrative military contracts.
The Observer reported that Elon Musk’s space flight company would be launching a classified payload to support clandestine activities for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
The National Reconnaissance Office is the agency in charge of designing, building, launching, and maintaining U.S. intelligence satellites. It’s a member of the U.S. Intelligence Community and an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense.
The mission was not listed on SpaceX’s customer manifest. This represented the first time SpaceX was exclusively launching a classified payload for the NRO, the Observer reported.
“Very little is known about the mission, though the limited public knowledge is consistent with the protocol for NRO activities,” the Observer reported at the time.
Based in Fairfax, Virginia, the NRO oversees surveillance activities for the Navy, Air Force, NSA, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Previous NRO missions were launched with military defense contractor (and primary SpaceX competitor) United Launch Alliance — a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
“When the U.S. needs eyes and ears in critical places where no human can reach – be it over the most rugged terrain or through the most hostile territory – it turns to the National Reconnaissance Office,” according to the agency’s website.
SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 1, 2017. The rocket was carrying a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office as part of the NROL-76 Mission. Details of the mission remain classified.
SpaceX’s mission was first hinted at during a congressional hearing in 2013, according to SpaceNews. NRO director Betty Sapp congratulated SpaceX at the GEOINT 2016 conference for “challenging the conventional wisdom about how to build a rocket” and announced that the spy agency has “bought launches from SpaceX.”
In October 2020, the National Reconnaissance Office confirmed that SpaceX would launch a new spy satellite on or after Oct. 25. Known as NROL-108, the mission would launch on a Falcon 9 rocket via SpaceX.
“It’s still extremely uncommon for a U.S. government launch of any kind to remain secret just one month prior to liftoff,” according to Teslarati, a California-based media company with a focus on Tesla, SpaceX, and ventures affiliated with Elon Musk.
On Nov. 27, 2020, a satellite-controlled machine gun was allegedly used to assassinate top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, 59, according to the Iranian Mehr news agency.
Fakhrizadeh was killed in a gun and car bomb attack on a highway outside Tehran when the weapon “zoomed in” on him “using artificial intelligence.” He was targeted with such accuracy that his wife, sitting inches away from him in the same vehicle, was not injured, Bloomberg reported.
Iran has blamed Israel for Fakhrizadeh’s killing, the fifth assassination of a nuclear scientist in Iran since 2010. It’s the second targeted killing of a high-ranking Iranian since January, when President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike on General Qassem Soleimani.
Israel has not claimed responsibility for the operation, but an unnamed senior Israeli official told the New York Times that the world should thank Israel for the assassination, Times of Israel reported. The senior official was involved for years in tracking Fakhrizadeh for Israel.
Fakhrizadeh was considered the driving force behind Iran’s nuclear weapons program for 20 years and part of Iran’s covert push for nuclear weapons, according to U.S. intelligence and Iranian nuclear documents stolen by Israel.
A U.S. official and two other intelligence officials confirmed to the New York Times that Israel was behind the attack.
“It was unclear how much the United States may have known about the operation in advance, but (Israel and the U.S.) are the closest of allies and have long shared intelligence regarding Iran,” New York Times reported.
Some have speculated that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to strike Iran while Donald Trump was still in office.
Former CIA Director John Brennan slammed the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist as “criminal and highly reckless” but urged Iranian leaders via Twitter to wait for “responsible American leadership” to return before responding.
Written by: Dana Sanchez