July 30, 2021

Photos: Surplus missile motor from 1960s launches classified NRO satellites


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A Cold War-era missile motor cast with solid propellant in 1966 fired up for the first time Wednesday to catapult a Northrop Grumman Minotaur 1 rocket off a launch pad in Virginia with three small spacecraft for the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency.

The Minotaur 1 rocket uses two surplus stages taken from the U.S. Air Force’s stockpiles of Minuteman 2 ballistic missiles. Northrop Grumman adds avionics, a payload compartment, and two solid-fueled upper stages to convert the missile parts into a satellite launcher.

The 69-foot-tall (21-meter) rocket took off from pad 0B at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia at 9:35 a.m. EDT (1335 GMT) Wednesday, June 15. The rocket’s solid-fueled first stage quickly ramped up to full power, producing more than 200,000 pounds of thrust to accelerate the Minotaur 1 past the speed of sound in less than 30 seconds.

Heading southeast over the Atlantic Ocean, the Minotaur 1 rocket fired three more solid motors to inject three classified satellites into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office.

These photos show the Minotaur 1 blasting off from the spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia. The yellow material peeling off the rocket at liftoff, sometimes called the “banana,” is a thermal cover designed to regulate temperatures for the Minuteman-heritage solid rocket motors while on the launch pad.

Read our full story for more details on the mission.

Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

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