Northrop Grumman launches U.S. reconnaissance satellites

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Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman today successfully used its Minotaur-4 rocket to launch four U.S. reconnaissance satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office.

Minotaur-4 is essentially re-purposed military ICBM that had been decommissioned, refurbished, and upgraded for orbital flight. This was its first launch from Wallops Island in Virginia. This was also Northrop Grumman’s second launch this year, which still leaves them out of the 2020 launch race leader board:

16 China
10 SpaceX
7 Russia

Today’s launch however puts the U.S. ahead of China in the national rankings, 17 to 16.


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  • David K

    Do we have any idea of how many tons to Leo? I suspect that not all launches are the same in this regard.

  • LocalFluff

    @David K
    I once tried to have a look at that. And it’s a mess! It’s no secret what each rocket can launch to lowest possible orbit, but how much they actually launch depends on what orbit the cargo is going into. And they rarely always launch at full capacity. NRO will launch a satellite only half the capacity of an Atlas V 501, the Japanese who always launch on their own rockets put satellites of different weight inside that nose cone.

    Basic physics tells us that the energy required to put anything anywhere, increases by the square of the velocity, but only linearly with the mass. So where something is launched to is more important than the mass of what is put there. A useful benchmark would be geosynchronous orbit since so many satellites are put there. But with things like Starlink in LEO, that is perhaps not so useful anymore.

  • LocalFluff

    One measure could be the amount of fuel and oxidizer used per launch (adjusted for whether it is kerosene, hydrogen or hypergolic or solid). But that too is a mess. They use safety margins in space flight, understandably. Depending on launch window they need a bit more or less fuel in the rocket. And for example when Curiosity was launched to Mars, its Sky Crane arrived with 140 kg extra fuel. The rover itself weighs barely a ton, so that’s pretty substantial. Considering the expenses for lowering the mass of everything that goes to space. But that seems to end now with SpaceX’ giant steel rocket. Bigger, faster and bigger again! And bigger. (And faster.)

  • wayne

    LGM-118 MX Peacekeeper ICBM

  • Edward

    LocalFluff wrote: “But that seems to end now with SpaceX’ giant steel rocket. Bigger, faster and bigger again! And bigger. (And faster.)

    Please remember the popularity of the cubesat and other smallsats that are now being built by the hundred (e.g. Starlink). There are plenty of small launchers being developed and one that is operational in a very successful way.

    SpaceX’s large sized rocket is due to its aspiration to get a lot of people and equipment to Mars. Space, today, seems to be going in both directions, large and small, with a little in between.

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