Minotaur-C successfully launches 10 commercial smallsats


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Capitalism in space: Orbital ATK’s Minotaur-C rocket today successfully launched 10 commercial smallsats.

It appears that they have upgraded the accused Taurus rocket in renaming it Minotaur-C.

After Orbital ATK suffered a series of launch failures with the Taurus rockets — which led to the loss of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory as well as its Glory climate-monitoring satellite — the company redesigned the Taurus. The new and improved rocket uses newer and more reliable technologies that Orbital ATK had built for its other Minotaur rockets.

This success is a very good thing for Orbital ATK, as the rocket likely gives them a strong position in the emerging smallsat market.

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6 comments

  • Edward

    Taurus has become a Phoenix rising from the “ashes” of its former self.

    I noticed that the video called the initial rocket stage as “stage zero.”

  • Dick Eagleson

    Edward,

    The reason for the Stage Zero thing is that Minotaur-C is basically a Castor 120 solid motor with a wingless Pegasus stuck on top and a hammerhead payload fairing on top of the Pegasus. Pegasus already had three solid stages numbered One, Two and Three so the booster stage for the Minotaur-C configuration is labeled Stage Zero to preserve the Pegasus nomenclature.

    That’s also why this particular “Minotaur” is allowed to launch commercial payloads. It’s design includes no government surplus ICBM motors.

    From a price standpoint, NGOATK’s Pegasus is not going to be competitive with new smallsat launchers coming from Rocket Lab, Vector and others. But those vehicles aren’t yet in service. Minotaur-C’s larger payload and only modestly higher cost, though, makes it potentially a player, even against the newcomers, now that its reputation is on the mend. The total mission price would still have to come down, but that may prove possible.

    This mission launched 6 Skysat birds and four of the 3U-cubesat Doves for Planet. The Skysats massed 600 kg (100 kg each) and the Doves massed 16 kg (4 kg each). Total deployable mass for the mission also included an expendable bulkhead/deployer to which four of the Skysats were mounted. This was discarded after the first four Skysats were deployed so that the last pair of Skysats, riding beneath the bulkhead, could also be deployed. The Doves deployed from small peripheral deployer boxes.

    A Minotaur-C mission is now thought to cost a customer as much as $50 million. But Planet got 10 birds into orbit for that price. To put the same sats up using Vector R would have required six or seven launches at $3 million each. To do the same with the Rocket Lab Electron would require at least three launches, and perhaps as many as six at $4.9 million each. Neither vehicle is currently in service.

    Planet apparently derives enough revenue from its birds to make Orbital’s price attractive even at current levels. The Planet representative who was on-screen briefly during the pre-launch webcast of the Minotaur-C mission seemed almost giddy about this being Planet’s first-ever dedicated launch mission. If NGOATK can crank out more Minotaur-C’s over the next year or two before potential competitors can actually fly anything, I suspect Planet would take dibs on all of them even at the current price.

    If serial production at much higher rates than has been typical for NGOATK vehicles in the past can allow a drop in ask-for price of even 50%, NGOATK could have a genuinely competitive smallsat launch vehicle on its hands even after the new competitors reach operational capability.

  • Dick Eagleson: Assuming your estimates of the Minotaur-C’s normal pricing is correct, we must also not forget that Orbital ATK almost certainly gave Planet a price break to get this launch going. The history of the rocket required it.

  • wayne

    Dick– highly enjoy your Commentary on these Topics.

    The space dot com website breaks my browser (IE-11)
    Hosted webcast is at:
    Orbital ATK’s Minotaur C Launch
    https://youtu.be/eWsxNGD3fPE
    (42:15)
    -launch starts at the 20:00 mark-

  • Edward

    Dick Eagleson wrote: “Pegasus already had three solid stages numbered One, Two and Three so the booster stage for the Minotaur-C configuration is labeled Stage Zero to preserve the Pegasus nomenclature.

    Thanks, Dick. I suspected something like that.

    It will be interesting to watch how the market shakes out once Rocket Lab, Vector, and the others begin operations. Lockheed Martin has already removed their Athena rocket from the market, not that it was so successful.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Mr. Z.,

    I’m sure you’re right about the price charged to Planet by Orbital for this mission. To paraphrase The Princess Bride, it was likely a Discount of Unusual Size.

    The estimate of Minotaur-C’s “standard” price was not mine, just the upper end of a range ($40 – $50 million) given on the Minotaur-C Wikipedia page. The Wikipedia page for the Pegasus gives its “standard” price as ca. $40 million. For purposes of comparison, I just took what looked to be the worst case for Minotaur-C.

    But these very high prices are, to a fairly considerable degree, artifacts of Orbital’s historically low launch rate for these vehicles. Since its debut, Pegasus has launched only about every seven or eight months, on average. Minotaur-C’s average launch cadence has been one mission every 30 months. Three of its 10 missions have been failures including the previous consecutive pair.

    But development of these vehicles is done and there seems reason to expect production rates and mission cadences for both may be rising sharply over the next few years. Stratolaunch’s giant plane will be able to carry up to three Pegasus rockets aloft per mission and the success of Planet’s Halloween mission is also going to engender fresh interest in Minotaur-C. Even a rather modest increase in production rate could lower variable costs as well as the pro-rata burden for past development and ongoing overhead for both vehicles a lot and allow reduced pricing competitive with the up-and-comer new launch firms such as Rocket Lab and Vector. Every Pegasus built for Stratolaunch boosts the production rate for the three Pegasus stages also shared by Minotaur-C.

    wayne,

    Thanks for the kind words. I watched the mission webcast live via SpaceFlight Now. The mission was a success, but the webcast itself was fairly horrendous compared to the far more polished productions routinely turned out by Orbital’s competitors in the launch business. Orbital’s PR shop pretty obviously isn’t very media-savvy nor used to addressing a general public-type audience. But I can’t believe the crude webcast would be any plus even if it only went to prospective customers and not we Great Unwashed. Oh well, live and, one hopes, learn, I suppose.

    Edward,

    The next two or three years are, indeed, going to be quite eventful as significant new launch providers come on-line at both the top and bottom of the market and veteran players introduce new offerings. Overall launch rates, worldwide, will, I am confident, soon exceed even early-80’s Soviet levels. Fun times ahead for we space geeks.

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