Spaceflight Now: Minotaur


January 27, 2000 -- Follow the first launch of the OSPSLV Minotaur rocket with the JAWSAT satellite platform. Reload this page for the very latest on the mission.

2340 GMT (6:40 p.m. EST)

The U.S. Air Force today declared the inaugural launch of the OSP Minotaur rocket was successful. The launch vehicle, derived from Minuteman 2 ICBM missile parts and Pegasus rocket stages, placed the JAWSAT satellite platform into an acceptable orbit following liftoff Wednesday night from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The launch was a test flight aimed at proving the OSP Minotaur before committing more expensive satellites to fly on the rocket in the future.

"We demonstrated that we can take retired Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and use them as a low-cost, reliable, space launch vehicle," said Col. Dan Dansro, the launch mission director. "By inserting satellites into the desired orbit, we've now proven this new capability."

Although the Air Force did not receive as much data from the rocket as expected, officials say the launch went as planned.

"The data we received from the rocket indicated it was performing as expected," said Maj. Steven Buckley, the Air Force launch director.

The Air Force says it has yet to calculate the exact orbit achieved by the rocket, but the orbital period is 100 minutes long, which was planned.

Ground controllers with the various satellites launched yesterday have reported in, according to the Air Force. Students from the Arizona State University, the Air Force Academy and Stanford University say they have established communications with their spacecraft, ASUSAT, FalconSat and OPAL, respectively. However, officials say problems have prevented communications with the JAWSAT platform that carried and then released the smaller satellites. JAWSAT also features a control system experiment and NASA-sponsored test that will remain attached.

Several organizations were involved in the launch, including Orbital Sciences, Spaceport Systems International, One Stop Satellite Solutions and TRW. "The team has provided this country with a new avenue to space," said Dansro.

Officially called the Orbital Suborbital Program Space Launch Vehicle, the OSP program is managed by the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, California. The vehicle is capable of launching payloads sponsored by the U.S. government weighing up to 750 pounds to a 400-nautical mile, sun-synchronous orbit. That lift capability is about 1.5 times offered by Orbital Sciences' Pegasus XL rocket.

Orbital helped develop and launch Minotaur with the Air Force.

"We are extremely proud of the work we have done on this program for the Air Force, which has given the nation an entirely new space launch capability," said Ron Grabe, former astronaut and now the general manager of Orbital's Launch Systems Group.

This will conclude our Mission Status Center coverage of the first OSP Minotaur launch. The next Minotaur launch is tentatively scheduled for mid-June when the Air Force's Mightysat 2.1 satellite will be placed into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

0600 GMT (1:00 a.m. EST)

U.S. Air Force officials are cautiously optimistic the $23 million test flight of the new OSP Minotaur rocket was successful tonight. However, a lack of data from the booster has left some questions unanswered, including the exact orbit achieved and proper execution of the payload deployment sequence.

What space authorities can confirm is the fact five objects are orbiting the Earth from this launch. However, there should be six including five satellites and the rocket's spent upper stage. The Air Force says the one payload might be too small to detect, explaining why one object appears missing in radar tracking data.

The whole purpose of the launch was to prove the Minotaur rocket could accurately deliver a working satellite into the desire orbit while collecting a database of information about the booster's performance. The vehicle was created using a combination of leftover Minuteman 2 missile parts and Pegasus rocket stages.

If tonight's launch was successful as officials believe, it would clear the way for the first operational flight of Minotaur in mid-June to place the Air Force's Mightysat 2.1 satellite into space.

There are two problems that have created the void in hard information.

First, a live relay of information from OSP Minotaur ended about 10 minutes into flight, a full minute earlier than expected.

Secondly, recorded data sent to a receiving station near the South Pole was only part of what was expected.

The loss early in the flight, through the tracking station at the Vandenberg Air Force Base launch site, meant officials could not confirm a successful firing of the fourth stage. The first three stages are said to have performed normally.

The fourth stage and the attached JAWSAT platform where then to begin the deployment sequence to release the ASUSAT, OPAL, OCSE and FalconSat satellites while out of range from ground controllers. Later, JAWSAT should have been released from the spent fourth stage.

About 15 minutes after all the satellite deployments were supposed to be completed, the cluster of objects passed over the McMurdo tracking site in Antarctica. It was through that station the rocket was designed to broadcast stored information about the mission so officials could determine the success of the launch.

The rocket's relay to McMurdo was in the form of five packages of information, each two minutes long. However, only the last package was received by the tracking station and it was only one minute and nine seconds long.

What data was received will be analyzed over the next few days.

Satellite controllers report hearing the carrier signal from the JAWSAT platform and ASUSAT officials say they have detected that craft's beacon, an Air Force spokeswoman said.

The first opportunity for controllers to directly communicate with the satellites won't occur until after 1100 GMT (6 a.m. EST).

This will wrap up our coverage for tonight. We will post additional information tomorrow as it becomes available.

0346 GMT (10:46 p.m. EST)

T+plus 43 minutes. TRW now says that data has been received at McMurdo.

0343 GMT (10:43 p.m. EST)

T+plus 40 minutes. TRW public affairs officials report that data from the OSP Minotaur rocket has not received from the McMurdo tracking station. This does not necessarily indicate a serious problem or launch failure. We will pass along any information as it becomes available.

0323 GMT (10:23 p.m. EST)

T+plus 20 minutes. At this point in time, the JAWSAT satellite adapter should have been released from the rocket's upper stage to complete the payload deployment sequence for the first launch of Minotaur. However, since the rocket is performing this sequence while out of communications range with any tracking station, live confirmation is not available.

The rocket will pass over the McMurdo tracking site in Antarctica in about 10 to 15 minutes. Minotaur will relay its data at that time. The information will be formatted and sent to controllers back in the U.S. However, it will be another hour or so before the Air Force expects to be able to determine if the satellite deployments occurred.

Confirmation of complete launch success, which says the rocket's stages all performed normally, the orbit achieved was accurate and the satellites were jettisoned, will not come until about T+plus 2 1/2 hours after a more thorough data review.

0320 GMT (10:20 p.m. EST)

T+plus 17 minutes. If all things are going according to plan, the ASUSAT, OPAL, OCSE and FalconSat payloads should have been released from the JAWSAT platform. The next milestone would be deployment of JAWSAT from the Minotaur rocket's fourth stage.

0317 GMT (10:17 p.m. EST)

T+plus 14 minutes. The Air Force reports all data was normal with the vehicle when the loss of signal occurred through the Vandenberg tracking station. The earliest time in which Air Force could announce deployment of the satellites will be about an hour from now.

0314 GMT (10:14 p.m. EST)

T+plus 11 minutes. At this point in the flight, the rocket should be nearing completion of the fourth stage burn. However, no live data is available from the rocket since it has moved out of range of the Vandenberg tracking station. The next information will come from a tracking site near the South Pole, which will confirm the deployment of the payloads and JAWSAT platform.

0313 GMT (10:13 p.m. EST)

T+plus 10 minutes, 30 seconds. Third stage separation was confirmed and views at Vandenberg report seeing ignition of the fourth stage.

0313 GMT (10:13 p.m. EST)

T+plus 10 minutes. LOS data. The rocket has passed out of range from the Vandenberg tracking station.

0312 GMT (10:12 p.m. EST)

T+plus 9 minutes. Coming up on separation of the spent third stage in about a minute. The fourth stage will ignite a few moments later to increase the rocket's velocity and boost the JAWSAT payload out it the current ballistic coast to an actual orbit.

0311 GMT (10:11 p.m. EST)

T+plus 8 minutes. All systems still reported nominal aboard the Minotaur rocket.

0310 GMT (10:10 p.m. EST)

T+plus 7 minutes. Less than three minutes away from the jettison of the third stage and ignition of the fourth stage.

0309 GMT (10:09 p.m. EST)

T+plus 6 minutes. The rocket's attitude is remaining steady during this ballistic coast phase of flight.

0308 GMT (10:08 p.m. EST)

T+plus 5 minutes. Temperatures and voltages of systems on the rocket continue to remain nominal in this coast period.

0307 GMT (10:07 p.m. EST)

T+plus 4 minutes. The third stage has burned out as planned. The vehicle will now coast for about six minutes until third and four stages separate.

0306 GMT (10:06 p.m. EST)

T+plus 3 minutes. All telemetry from the rocket indicate nominal performance of systems.

0305 GMT (10:05 p.m. EST)

T+plus 2 minutes, 20 seconds. Second and third stage separation called. This sheds the Minuteman 2 portion of Minotaur and the Pegasus heritage takes over. Third stage has ignited. Attitude is nominal.

0304 GMT (10:04 p.m. EST)

T+plus 1 minute. First stage has separated. Second stage is firing.

0303 GMT (10:03 p.m. EST)

T+plus 30 seconds. Vehicle has rolled to the proper trajectory. All data nominal.

0303 GMT (10:03 p.m. EST)

LIFTOFF! The OSP Minotaur begins its maiden voyage with the JAWSAT satellite.

0302 GMT (10:02 p.m. EST)

T-minus 1 minute.

0301 GMT (10:01 p.m. EST)

T-minus 90 seconds. Vehicle has been armed.

0301 GMT (10:01 p.m. EST)

T-minus 2 minutes. Auto sequence start. Flight computer is controlling the countdown.

0300 GMT (10:00 p.m. EST)

T-minus 2 minutes, 30 seconds. The guidance computer is now in navigation mode. Coming up on auto sequence start in 30 seconds.

0959 GMT (9:59 p.m. EST)

T-minus 3 minutes, 30 seconds. The guidance system alignment is completed.

0259 GMT (9:59 p.m. EST)

T-minus 4 minutes. The flight computer is armed.

0258 GMT (9:58 p.m. EST)

T-minus 5 minutes. The Range recorders are now running.

0257 GMT (9:57 p.m. EST)

T-minus 6 minutes. The PSS batteries have been activated. These batteries cannot be recycled if the launch does not go tonight.

0256 GMT (9:56 p.m. EST)

T-minus 6 minutes, 30 seconds. A final poll of the launch team has been completed and all systems are go.

0256 GMT (9:56 p.m. EST)

T-minus 7 minutes. The flight termination system is armed.

0255 GMT (9:55 p.m. EST)

T-minus 8 minutes. The rocket's flight termination system has switched to internal power.

0254 GMT (9:54 p.m. EST)

T-minus 9 minutes and counting. The ground alignment of the navigation unit is starting.

0253 GMT (9:53 p.m. EST)

T-minus 10 minus and counting.

0251 GMT (9:51 p.m. EST)

Officials have just announced the launch time will be 0303:06 GMT (10:03:06 p.m. EST), the opening of tonight's window.

0247 GMT (9:47 p.m. EST)

The final workers have departed the launch pad and all systems remain go for liftoff.

0240 GMT (9:40 p.m. EST)

The "banana" thermal blanket has been pulled off the rocket.

0238 GMT (9:38 p.m. EST)

Removal of the thermal blanket is starting.

0236 GMT (9:36 p.m. EST)

A poll of the launch team has been completed and the thermal blanket covering the Minuteman 2 stages of Minotaur will be removed shortly.

0235 GMT (9:35 p.m. EST)

Disregard the earlier update on the launch time. The commentators from TRW say they were wrong. Launch remains set for 0303 GMT (10:03 p.m. EST), but officials could slip the liftoff back 10 minutes to the preferred launch time for one of the satellites.

0226 GMT (9:26 p.m. EST)

Unofficially, the public affairs commentators report the launch time may be moved up to 0259 GMT (9:59 p.m. EST). That would be about four minutes prior to the opening of the advertised launch window. We will pass along confirmation when we get it.

0217 GMT (9:17 p.m. EST)

All systems remain go for launch of the Minotaur rocket in less than an hour from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Officials report the launch pad has been cleared of all workers except for the team that will remove the thermal blanket on the rocket.

Tonight's launch is the first time a Minuteman ICBM has been used to place a satellite into space. But the idea has been around for over 30 years. The U.S. Air Force had thought about launching a Minuteman 1 with an extra upper stage in the late 1960s, but that flight was scrapped.

Recently, I interviewed Maj. Steve Buckley, the launch director for this inaugural OSP Minotaur mission.

"The concept has been around for a long, long time...We never got to the point where we intended to launch a satellite using (solid-fueled ICBM) systems. Part of the reason is a satellite takes a lot more energy and most of the ICBMs did not have the energy to put a useful satellite on-orbit. So we put together a hybrid to achieve the kind of thrust that we needed to get to orbit. This configuration we are going to fly coming up here has half of it is Minuteman heritage and half if it is Pegasus heritage.

"The satellite niche that we are aimed at are small satellites going to low-Earth orbit. Most of what we launch are developmental-type satellites. Small launchers of this class weren't available with the exception of the Scout...which was a scientific rocket and it does not have an ICBM heritage."

Lt. Lou Marina, Air Force's small launch vehicle mission manager, explains why ICBM boosters are used to form a new rocket instead of launching commercial vehicle already available.

"When Minuteman was deactivated, we had hundreds of these rocket motors sitting there doing nothing. There were not going to be used for ICBMs anymore, but they were quality built motors and already paid for by the U.S. tax payer. We felt we could use these motors for something else other than ICMBs and space launch is something we could use them for. As a result we have the (OSP) Space Launch Vehicle."

Minotaur has the capability to launch every 60 days. However, there aren't that many satellites to launch so Minotaur is expected to fly twice per year over the course its contract life between the U.S. Air Force and Orbital Sciences. The contract extends for another four years.

Marina: "Because the rocket is inexpensive as it is in comparison to other rockets, we feel that once we are successful with this first and probably the second launch this spring, there will be a lot of government folks that want to sign up to launch their payloads on this rocket. I don't see a reason why this won't be a successful program."

Read the fact sheet on OSP Minotaur.

0203 GMT (9:03 p.m. EST)

Now one hour away from the opening of the three-hour launch window. Officials are expected to shift to launch to 0313 GMT (10:13 p.m. EST), the preferred time by one of the onboard satellite payloads.

The rocket flying tonight is officially known as the U.S. Air Force Orbital Suborbital Program Space Launch Vehicle. However, it also has the nickname Minotaur. Lt. Lou Marina, Air Force's small launch vehicle mission manager explains how the rocket got this unofficial nickname.

"We were trying to keep in the traditional of Orbital Sciences' launch vehicle. Typically, they are mythological nicknames (Pegasus and Taurus) and this is just a nickname. We had an Air Force/Orbital Sciences 'name the rocket contest' and everyone who felt they had a good name for the rocket and could put a plausible reason to why the rocket should be named that. We had at least a hundred entries of different mythological creatures and some weren't even mythological. When it came down to it, Minotaur was the one we selected. We felt it was appropriate. The Minotaur is half bull, half man. This rocket is half a Pegasus and half Minuteman. It really is an Orbital Sciences Corp. marketing name. It is hard to market a vehicle if it has a long name like OSP Space Launch Vehicle."

0135 GMT (8:35 p.m. EST)

The sun is setting at Vandenberg Air Force Base as the countdown continues smoothly for launch of the Minotaur rocket and JAWSAT payload in about 90 minutes.

The mission will be the first to occur from the Commercial Launch Facility operated by Spaceport Systems International. SSI is a limited partnership between ITT Industries and California Commercial Spaceport, Inc.

The pad is not run by the U.S. Air Force or NASA, and is aimed at small- to medium-sized rockets. The CLF is situated the southern most corner of Vandenberg Air Force Base near Space Launch Complex-6, which would have been used by the space shuttle. Construction of the new pad was completed on May 1.

SSI also operates a payload processing facility (IPF) located at Space Launch Complex-6.

0115 GMT (8:15 p.m. EST)

Countdown clocks are ticking off the final two hours to launch of the Minotaur rocket. There are no problems being reported and weather conditions remain acceptable for liftoff.

2103 GMT (4:03 p.m. EST)

T-minus 6 hours and counting. The countdown begins at this time for launch of the U.S. Air Force OSP Minotaur rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Liftoff is now six hours away, scheduled to occur at 0303 GMT (10:03 p.m. EST).

"Things are looking real good," Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Colleen Lehne said.

The only possible hitch could be the weather. Currently, skies are clear at the launch site. But clouds are forecasted to roll over Vandenberg later tonight and ground-level winds will become more gusty.

A joint Air Force and Orbital Sciences launch team will guide the countdown, which is being controlled from two separate locations at Vandenberg.

"We have two teams running this launch," said Maj. Steve Buckley, the Air Force launch director. "The first team is actually working the rocket and they are located at the spaceport on the south base at Vandenberg. That operation is aimed at the mechanical operation of the rocket. The other group is what we call the Mission Control Team, and they are going to be up in the formal control room at Building 7000. Their job is to oversee all the events and make decisions if anything happens."

Read our earlier Mission Status Center coverage.

Flight data file
Vehicle: OSPSLV-1
Payload: JAWSAT
Launch date: Jan. 27, 2000
Launch window: 0303-0604 GMT (10:03 p.m.-1:04 a.m. EST on 26th)
Launch site: CLF, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Photo gallery
Launch - Images of the OSP Minotaur's nighttime launch into space.

Video vault
The inaugural OSP Minotaur rocket blasts off from pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
  PLAY (271k QuickTime file)

The rocket's second stage ignites and the first stage is jettisoned as seen by infrared camera.
  PLAY (89k QuickTime file)

Pre-launch briefing
Learn more about the mission.

OSP Minotaur - description of U.S. Air Force OSPSLV rocket.

Payloads - a look at JAWSAT and the other satellites to be launched on this flight.

Launch timeline - chart with description of events to occur during launch.

Launch preview - overview of the mission.

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