A small US military satellite named Odyssey, designed and built in less than a year by a new secret Space Force special projects unit, is expected to launch early Sunday from a plane off the coast of California aboard a rocket Northrop Grumman Pegasus.
The objective of the mission is to demonstrate how the military can develop and launch satellites more quickly. The tiny spacecraft, which a Space Force spokesperson says is called Odyssey, is buttoned inside the nose cone of a Pegasus XL rocket.
The solid-fuel Pegasus launcher is mounted under the belly of an L-1011 carrier aircraft awaiting take-off from Vandenberg Space Base in California. The three-engine plane is expected to take off about an hour before launch time, which the Space Force says is 4:11 a.m. EDT (1:11 a.m. PDT; 0811 GMT) on Sunday.
Northrop Grumman and the Space Force have no plans to live-stream the launch on the web.
There is a 60% chance of acceptable weather conditions for Sunday’s launch opportunity, mainly due to a thick layer of marine cloud at Vandenberg that could prevent the L-1011 aircraft, named “Stargazer,” to take off.
The 55-foot-long (17-meter) Pegasus XL rocket is capable of placing a payload of up to 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms) into low earth orbit, according to Northrop Grumman. The rocket consists of a winged first stage and two additional solid fuel engines.
The L-1011 carrier aircraft, flown by two pilots, a flight engineer and two launch operators, will head west from Vandenberg to the Pegasus drop box about 150 miles (250 kilometers) from the coast .
“At this point we’re pretty much ready to go,” said Kurt Eberly, director of the pitching division at Northrop Grumman. “We are monitoring the weather. The marine layer has moved at night and this launch is scheduled for early morning. So we’ll be watching that for some of the aircraft’s constraints in terms of minimum ceilings and minimum visibility, and I hope we can be clear on that. “
The mission launched on Sunday is known as TacRL-2 and is part of the Space Force’s Tactically Responsive Launch program.
Military officials have released few details about the Odyssey satellite.
Space Force spokesperson Major Nick Mercurio said the payload is a “space awareness technology demonstration satellite.” Space domain knowledge is one that encompasses the detection, tracking and characterization of satellites and debris in orbit.
Airspace warning notices suggest the Pegasus XL rocket will launch on a southerly path from the drop box over the Pacific Ocean, likely targeting a sun-synchronous orbit with an inclination of around 98 degrees.
The Stargazer flight crew will command the drop of the 53,000 pound (24 metric ton) Pegasus XL rocket from an altitude of 39,000 feet (11,900 meters). Five seconds later, Pegasus’ first stage will light up to begin the climb into orbit.
The three stages of the rocket will complete their combustion in less than 10 minutes before returning the Odyssey satellite to orbit.
The Odyssey spacecraft was built by a new organization called “Space Safari”, modeled on the Air Force’s secret “Big Safari” program which modifies planes for special missions, according to General Jay Raymond, chief of operations. spaceships of the Space Force.
“What concerns me is our ability to go fast, so everything we do in the Space Force is designed to allow us to move at high speed,” Raymond said Thursday in a virtual chat hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. “So, about a year ago, I challenged our acquisition organization to develop a capability within the tactical timeline, integrate it into a launch vehicle and launch it, and let’s see how quickly we can do it.
“So we created an organization called Space Safari, modeled on what the Air Force did with their Big Safari program, and in less than a year they took the satellite components out of the car, took them out. associated with a satellite bus that was off the shelf, put it together, and it’s a space domain knowledge satellite.
Raymond said it takes about five years to build a GPS navigation satellite.
“It’s not good enough,” he said.
Building and launching a spacecraft in less than a year could allow the Space Force to rapidly deploy a satellite to respond to an emerging threat or to replace a critical wartime satellite.
“This is a first experience and I am proud of the team,” said Raymond. “It was less than a year after I gave them the challenge of a launch.”
Once the satellite was built, the Space Force was stored until May, when authorities called it for launch.
“We kind of had it on the shelf. We just gave them a 21-day call-up, telling them to get ready for launch in 21 days, ”Raymond said.
The Space Force awarded Northrop Grumman a $ 28.1 million contract to launch the TacRL-2 last July. The Ministry of Defense has awarded the order under the Orbital Services Program-4 contract, which covers small and medium-sized military satellite launch services until 2028.
Northrop Grumman had the Pegasus XL rocket for the TacRL-2 mission in storage. It was one of two Pegasus rockets made for Stratolaunch, a company founded by the late billionaire Paul Allen. Stratolaunch developed the largest aircraft ever built and purchased two Pegasus rockets to launch from the giant aircraft, then planned to work on its own launch vehicle.
But Stratolaunch’s progress slowed after Allen’s death in 2018, and the company scrapped plans to launch Pegasus rockets. Instead, Stratolaunch said last year it was working on a hypersonic test vehicle.
Stratolaunch’s aircraft flew successfully for the first time in 2019 and completed a second test flight in April.
After Stratolaunch’s plans changed, Northrop Grumman bought Stratolaunch’s nearly complete Pegasus rockets to offer them to other customers.
Eberly said Northrop Grumman and the Space Force had worked out how to execute the TacRL-2 mission in the months leading up to the May 22 call, including agreements with the Western Range at Vandenberg on flight safety parameters. But some details, such as the target orbit and trajectory, weren’t known to Team Pegasus until 21 days ago.
“I would say it’s very successful,” he said in an interview. “What we just did with the space vehicle team is really tough. We got the order 21 days ago on a Saturday night. Our team just took action. In that call, we got a direction on the line and where to throw, and a few other details, so our team had to adjust to all of that.
The Odyssey satellite has arrived in Vandenberg within the past three weeks. Technicians encapsulated the spacecraft inside the Pegasus payload fairing before docking it to the rocket.
Vandenberg ground crews connected the Pegasus XL rocket to the L-1011 carrier aircraft on Wednesday.
Developed commercially by Orbital Sciences, now part of Northrop Grumman, the Pegasus rocket has flown 44 satellite delivery missions since 1990. Pegasus missions have been staged from Vandenberg, Edwards Air Force Base, Cape Canaveral, Wallops Island in Virginia, Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean and the Canary Islands.
Despite the growth of small satellite operators, the Pegasus rocket has only been launched twice in the past seven years amid increasing competition from other launch companies like SpaceX. Other small satellite launch providers, such as Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, are also entering the market once served by the Pegasus rocket.
The last Pegasus mission in 2019 launched a NASA research satellite. NASA paid $ 56.3 million to launch the satellite on a Pegasus rocket.
This mission was delayed for more than two years due to technical issues with the Pegasus. NASA decided in 2019 to launch a future scientific satellite aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, a launcher much larger than the Pegasus.
The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, was originally designed to be launched on a Pegasus rocket. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is vastly oversized for the IXPE satellite, but it has the ability to launch the small payload into a single equatorial orbit from Cape Canaveral.
And SpaceX can perform the launch for $ 50.3 million, which is lower than the previous retail price of a Pegasus. The $ 28 million order for the TacRL-2 mission is half the price NASA paid for the most recent Pegasus mission in 2019.
Eberly said the Pegasus rocket, designed by Orbital Sciences in the 1980s as the first privately-developed satellite launcher, still has a role to play in the launch industry.
“Solid rocket motor propulsion is maybe a little more expensive than some of the low-cost new entrants we’re seeing coming in,” he said. “We understand this.”
The advantage of solid fuel launchers, according to Eberly, is that they are inherently reactive.
“They can be stored for many years and then are ready to go anytime,” Eberly said. “Solid rocket engine technology can provide very short call times and responsiveness. What you need to do is do all the work up front, prepare yourself and put the plan into action.
Northrop Grumman has another Pegasus XL rocket in the hangar and could build more. So far, the Pegasus has no clients beyond Sunday’s TacRL-2 mission.
The Space Force issued a request for proposals earlier this year for two additional tactical launch missions – TacRL-3 and 4 – for flights in 2022 and 2023.
The military in 2019 selected Aevum, Firefly, Northrop Grumman, Rocket Lab, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, VOX Space, and X-Bow as eligible to participate in OSP-4 missions, including TacRL-3 and 4.
The ground-launched Minotaur rocket family, derived from decommissioned solid-fuel military missile stages, and the air-launched Pegasus rocket are offerings from Northrop Grumman under the OSP-4 contract.
“If there is a need to shorten those order times, then solids might have a place to play that role,” he said. “In addition to vehicles launched from the ground, an air-launched solid then gives you flexibility in base and drop point, and allows you to reach different orbits faster than if you had to launch from the ground at one point. fixed launch point.
“Maybe there’s a role there,” Eberly said. “So we’re going to do our best here on TacRL-2 and put our best assets… And then after the mission, we’ll see what comes out of it. “
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