Hush-hush military satellite ready to ride Pegasus rocket into orbit

File photo of a Pegasus XL rocket mounted under its L-1011 carrier jet before a previous mission. Credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

A small U.S. military satellite named Odyssey, designed and built in less than a year by a secretive new Space Force special projects unit, is set to launch early Sunday from an aircraft off the coast of California aboard a Northrop Grumman Pegasus rocket.

The mission’s goal is to demonstrate how the military can develop and launch satellites on faster timescales. The small spacecraft, which a Space Force spokesperson said is named Odyssey, is buttoned up inside the nose cone of a Pegasus XL rocket.

The solid-fueled Pegasus launcher is mounted under the belly of an L-1011 carrier jet awaiting takeoff from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The triple-engine aircraft is expected to take off about an hour before launch time, which the Space Force said is set for 4:11 a.m. EDT (1:11 a.m. PDT; 0811 GMT) Sunday.

Northrop Grumman and the Space Force do not plan to provide a live webcast of the launch.

There is a 60% chance of acceptable weather for Sunday’s launch opportunity, primarily driven by a thick marine cloud layer at Vandenberg that could prevent the L-1011 aircraft, named “Stargazer,” from taking 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-fueled motors.

The L-1011 carrier jet, crewed 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) off the coast.

“At this point, we’re pretty much ready to go,” said Kurt Eberly, director of Northrop Grumman’s launch vehicles division. “We are monitoring the weather. The marine layer has been moving in at night, and this launch is scheduled for early morning. So we’ll be monitoring that for some of the aircraft constraints in terms of ceiling minimums and visibility minimums, and hopefully we can get clear on that.”

The mission launching 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.

Maj. Nick Mercurio, a Space Force spokesperson, said the payload is a “space domain awareness technology demonstration satellite.” Space domain awareness is a field 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 trajectory to the south from the drop box over the Pacific Ocean, likely targeting a sun-synchronous orbit with an inclination of about 98 degrees.

The Stargazer flight crew will command release of the 53,000-pound (24-metric ton) Pegasus XL rocket at an altitude of 39,000 feet (11,900 meters). Five seconds later, the Pegasus first stage will ignite to begin the climb into orbit.

The rocket’s three stages will complete their burns in less than 10 minutes before releasing the Odyssey satellite in orbit.

The Odyssey spacecraft was built by a new organization called “Space Safari,” modeled after the Air Force’s secretive “Big Safari” program that modifies aircraft for special missions, according to Gen. Jay Raymond, the Space Force’s chief of space operations.

“The thing that concerns me is our ability to go fast, so everything that we’re doing in the Space Force is designed to allow us to move at speed,” Raymond said Thursday in a virtual discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. “So about a year ago, I challenged our acquisition organization to develop a capability in tactical timelines, integrated it onto a launch vehicle and launch it, and let’s see how fast we can do it.

“So we stood up an organization called Space Safari, modeled kind of after what the Air Force has done with their Big Safari program, and in less than a year, they took satellite components off the self, married it up with a satellite bus that was off the shelf, put it together, and it’s a space domain awareness satellite.”

Raymond said it takes about five years to build a GPS navigation satellite.

“That’s not good enough,” he said.

Building and launching a spacecraft in less than a year could pave the way for the Space Force to quickly deploy a satellite to respond to an emerging threat, or to replace a critical satellite in wartime.

“This is a first experiment, and I’m proud of the team,” Raymond said. “It was less than year from when I gave them the challenge to a launch.”

Once the satellite was built, the Space Force kept in storage until May, when officials called it up for launch.

“We kind of had it on the shelf. We just gave them a 21 day call-up, saying get ready to launch in 21 days,” Raymond said

The Space Force awarded Northrop Grumman a $28.1 million contract for the TacRL-2 launch last July. The Defense Department awarded the task order through the Orbital Services Program-4 contract, which covers launch services for small and medium-size military satellites through 2028.

File photo of a Pegasus rocket in Northrop Grumman’s hangar at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. Credit: NASA/Randy Beaudoin

Northrop Grumman had the Pegasus XL rocket for the TacRL-2 mission in storage. It was one of two Pegasus rockets manufactured for Stratolaunch, a company founded by the late billionaire Paul Allen. Stratolaunch developed the largest airplane 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 abandoned plans to launch Pegasus rockets. Instead, Stratolaunch said last year it is working on a hypersonic test vehicle.

Stratolaunch’s airplane successfully flew for the first time in 2019, and completed a second test flight in April.

After Stratolaunch’s plans changed, Northrop Grumman reacquired the near-complete Pegasus rockets from Stratolaunch to offer to other customers.

Eberly said Northrop Grumman and the Space Force worked out how to execute the TacRL-2 mission in the months leading up to the call-up May 22, including agreements with the Western Range at Vandenberg on flight safety parameters. But some specifics, such as the target orbit and trajectory, were not known to the Pegasus team until 21 days ago.

“I would say it was very successful,” he said in an interview. “What we just did with the space vehicle team is really hard. We got the call-up 21 days ago on a Saturday evening. Our team just swung into action. In that call-up, we got direction on the trajectory and where to launch to, and some other particulars. So our team had to adjust to all that.”

The Odyssey satellite arrived at Vandenberg within the last three weeks. Technicians encapsulated the spacecraft inside the Pegasus payload fairing before mating it to the rocket.

Ground teams at Vandenberg connected the Pegasus XL rocket to the L-1011 carrier aircraft Wednesday.

Developed commercially by Orbital Sciences, now part of Northrop Grumman, the Pegasus rocket has flown on 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 launched two times in the last seven years amid growing competition from other launch companies like SpaceX. Other launch providers in the small satellite sector, such as Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, are also cutting into the market once served by the Pegasus rocket.

The most recent Pegasus mission in 2019 launched a NASA research satellite. NASA paid $56.3 million to launch the satellite on a Pegasus rocket.

That mission was delayed more than two years due to technical problems with the Pegasus. NASA decided in 2019 to launch a future scientific satellite aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, a much larger launcher than the Pegasus.

The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, was originally designed to launch 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 unique equatorial orbit from Cape Canaveral.

And SpaceX can do the launch for $50.3 million, undercutting the previous publicly-available price for a Pegasus. The $28 million task 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-priced new entrants that we see come along,” he said. “We understand that.”

The benefit of solid-fueled launchers, according to Eberly, is they are inherently responsive.

“They are able to be stored for many, many years, and then are ready to launch at a moment’s notice,” Eberly said. “Solid rocket motor technology can enable very short call-up times and responsiveness. What it requires is to get all the work done up front, and get ready, and get the plan done.’

Northrop Grumman has one more Pegasus XL rocket in the hangar, and could build more. So far, the Pegasus doesn’t have a customer beyond Sunday’s TacRL-2 mission.

The Space Force issued a request for proposals earlier this year for two additional tactically responsive 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 compete for OSP-4 missions, including TacRL-3 and 4.

The ground-launched Minotaur rocket family, derived from decommissioned solid-fueled military missile stages, and the air-launched Pegasus rocket are Northrop Grumman’s offerings under the OSP-4 contract.

“If there is a need to shorten up these call-up times, then solids could have a place to serve in that role,” he said. “In addition to the vehicles launched from the ground, an air-launched solid then gives you flexibility in the basing and the drop point, and allowing you to get to different orbits more quickly than you could get to if you had to launch from the ground at a fixed launch point.

“Maybe there’s a role there,” Eberly said. “So we’re going to do our best job here on TacRL-2 , and put our best foot forward … And then after the mission, we’ll see what comes out of it.”

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