Pegasus problems continue


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Capitalism in space: The much-delayed launch of a NASA science satellite by Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket continues to slip, with the unstated technical issues that caused several earlier launch dates to be cancelled lingering.

NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) mission was scheduled to launch in late 2017 on a Pegasus XL rocket based out of Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. That launch was delayed to June 2018 because of an issue with the rocket’s separation system, then delayed again when engineers detected “off-nominal” data from the rocket during a ferry flight from California ahead of the June launch attempt.

That problem was linked to a faulty sensor that was replaced, with the launch eventually rescheduled for Nov. 7, this time flying out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. However, after the rocket’s L-1011 aircraft took off for the Nov. 7 launch attempt, engineers again detected off-nominal data from the rocket and scrubbed the launch.

Neither NASA nor Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, which builds the Pegasus, have provided additional details about the problem, but at a December meeting of an advisory committee, Nicky Fox, director of NASA’s heliophysics division, said engineers were examining the control system of the rocket’s fins.

Fox, speaking at a Feb. 25 meeting of a National Academies committee here, said the launch was now scheduled for no earlier than the second quarter. “Northrop Grumman is still working extremely hard to analyze what is causing these anomalies during the ferry flight,” she said. “They’re working extremely hard to try and get ICON up as soon as possible.”

The article notes that Pegasus has only had three launches in the past decade. It was originally designed to provide a low cost option for smaller satellites, but over the decades did not fulfill that goal. It is now much more expensive than the many smallsat rockets coming on line. With these unexplained issues preventing this launch as well, its future appears dim at best

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5 comments

  • Col Beausabre

    “. With these unexplained issues preventing this launch as well, its future appears dim at best”

    It will still hang around the taxpayers’ necks for years. Three launches in a decade ? One shot delayed a year and half (at least) ? This is our idea of a “cheap” product ? Overtaken by commercial space ? Not to worry ! We’re the Magnificent NASA and Mighty Big Space and you WILL keep sending your tax dollars to us.

    Imagine the people working on ICON, seeing their lives and careers being pissed away (literally – how many PhD candidates need data from that mission to complete their dissertation ?). And, OMG, don’t even mention the poor SOB’s professionally joined at the hip to James Webb to conduct their research. You never hear it mentioned but consider the waste of intellect and talent being kept on hold or diverted into other fields of research. It must be absolutely soul crushing for the people involved.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    According to a 2018 GAO report the Pegasus XL is the most expensive US launcher at about $89K per kilogram and a maximum payload of 450 kg to LEO with a nominal cost of $40M per flight.

    Unfortunately for flights with the orbital parameters of the ICON spacecraft there is really no current alternative launcher.

  • Edward

    Zed_WEASEL,
    Three decades ago, when Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK, owned by Northrop Grumman) developed Pegasus, it was the least expensive option for putting small satellites into a specific orbit. Many in the aerospace industry were expecting small satellites to become a larger share of the business (Lockheed designed the Lockheed Launch Vehicle, later called Athena), but that expectation did not materialize, probably because the cost of launch remained high.

  • Mike Borgelt

    Maybe with 3 launches in ten years they are suffering from small improvements that manufacturers typically make to components.
    Been there, done that, got the T shirt.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Long-term, I think Orbital Sciences Corp. has to be judged a failure. Pegasus has proven expensive and unreliable. So have the rest of Orbital’s motley crew of Franken-rockets. Once SLS-Orion is cancelled and NGIS, Orbital’s latest incarnation, is done spending entirely too much of the government’s money developing the farcical OmegA – and that vehicle is down-selected in Phase two of the LSA program – the entire division is likely to be closed except for its medium-size solid motor operation which will likely be busy cranking out the next, much-delayed, generation of U.S. ICBM’s and SLBM’s.

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