Tag Archives: Pegasus

Northrop Grumman buys back Pegasus rockets from Stratolaunch

Northrop Grumman announced this week that it has bought back from Stratolaunch the two Pegasus rockets that company had bought for the purpose of launch from its giant Roc airplane.

Phil Joyce, vice president of space launch programs at Northrop Grumman, said this week that the company is trying to sell the launches using the two remaining Pegasus XL rockets, and officials plan to keep the Pegasus rocket’s L-1011 carrier jet flying for at least five or 10 more years.

The airborne launch of NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, scientific satellite Thursday night off Florida’s east coast is the final scheduled flight of a Pegasus XL rocket. Variants of the solid-fueled Pegasus rocket have flown on 43 satellite delivery missions since 1990.

“We actually purchased those back (from Stratolaunch),” Joyce said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “So they’re in a very advanced state of integration, which means they’re available for a very rapid response launch. We could launch one of those in six months, the second one probably in eight (months).

This buy back tells us two things, both negative, about both companies. With Stratolaunch, it means they have abandoned entirely the idea of launching satellites using a combination of Roc and Pegasus. The reasons are unclear, but I would guess that they have either discovered the engineering didn’t work, or the economics made the combination unprofitable, being too expensive.

As for Pegasus, it appears the rocket has no further contracts, and has had so much trouble drumming up business that they have decided not to build more. Instead, they are going to try to get contracts for these already built Pegasuses, and are likely going to offer lower prices for them. Even if this works, it does appear that we are about to see the end of the Pegasus rocket.

Created in the early 1980s by Orbital Sciences (later Orbital ATK) as a cheaper alternative to the expensive big rockets of the time, Pegasus had a viable business model for years. Slowly over time however its launch price rose, until it was no longer very cheap. And when SpaceX and other new cheaper alternatives arrived in the past six years, the company, eventually absorbed by Northrop Grumman, was unable to remain competitive.

The irony here is that Northrop Grumman purchased Orbital ATK expressly to allow it to enter the launch market, using both Pegasus and Antares. With Pegasus gone, and Antares still failing to find any customers other than NASA, it doesn’t look like the merger is paying off well for the company.

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Reused Falcon 9 wins NASA launch contract instead of Pegasus

Captalism in space: NASA has awarded SpaceX a Falcon 9 launch contract using a reused first stage for its next X-ray telescope, the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE)..

SpaceX will charge NASA just over $50 million, its normal price for a reused Falcon 9 and significantly less than NASA has previously paid for this kind of launch. More important, the telescope had been designed with the expectation that it would be launched using Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket. It appears NASA had instead decided to bypass Pegasus, partly because it probably costs more, and partly because there is some issue with Pegasus that has delayed the launch of NASA’s ICON since 2017.

In fact, that ICON launch is the only contract that Pegasus presently has, and it is charging NASA $56 million for that launch, with NASA also having to bear the additional costs associated with the delays caused by Pegasus. All these issues, plus the loss of the IXPE launch, strongly suggests that Pegasus is in big trouble. It does not appear that, as it is presently being marketed, it is able to garner any business.

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Pegasus problems continue

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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Stratolaunch ends plan to build rockets for its giant Roc aircraft

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch has decided to cease work on the family of second stage rockets plus engine, announced in August and September 2018, that would have launched from the bottom of its giant Roc airplane.

Instead, they will only launch Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rockets from Roc.

This does not look good for the company. Roc is vastly oversized for Pegasus, which really doesn’t need it. It also suggests that the death of Paul Allen has had a bad effect on the company.

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Stratolaunch to build its own upper stages

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch today announced that it is designing and building three differently-sized upper stage rockets to attach to the fuselage of its giant Roc airplane.

Beside the Pegasus rocket, owned by Northrop Grumman, aimed for first flight in 2020, Stratolaunch will build a medium and medium-heavy rockets, with the former set for a 2022 flight, as well as a fully reusable space plane, now in early development.

The space plane concept would apparently be capable of taking payloads up and down from orbit, and could therefore become the first totally reusable launch capability.

Overall, it does appear that the company, unable to find someone else to design its upper stage, has been forced to do it itself.

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Northrop Grumman’s first Pegasus launch delayed indefinitely

The first launch of a Pegasus rocket following the completion of the sale of Orbital ATK to Northrop Grumman has been delayed indefinitely because of “off-nominal data” detected in the rocket.

The payload is a NASA climate research satellite dubbed ICON. The rocket and launch crew were on board the L1011 carrier plane on they way to the Pacific launch area for next week’s launch when they detected the issue and decided to return to California.

This is not the first problem with this particular Pegasus launch.

ICON’s launch has been delayed a year by a pair of concerns with its Pegasus launcher. Engineers wanted more time to inspect the Pegasus rocket motors after they were mishandled during shipment to Vandenberg, officials said. That pushed the launch back from June to December 2017, the next availability in the military-run range at Kwajalein.

Then managers decided to ground the mission to assess the reliability of bolt-cutters used to jettison the Pegasus rocket’s payload fairing and separate the satellite in orbit. Workers installed smaller bolts in the fairing and satellite separation mechanisms, a measure officials said will ensure the cutters do their jobs.

For Northrop Grumman this isn’t the best way to start its new rocket business, but better a delay than a failed launch.

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Stratolaunch to make first flight later this year

Capitalism in space: Paul Allen said at a space conference today that Stratolaunch will likely make its maiden flight later this year.

Actual satellite launches will have to wait until around 2020, however, as the giant plane will first have to be certified by the FAA, a process expected to take one and a half to two years.

The profitability of this launch system at the moment remains an unknown. The only rocket presently set to launch on Stratolaunch is Orbital ATK’s Pegasus, which is designed to launch small to mid-size satellites. Stratolaunch will therefore have to compete with the slew of new smallsat rocket companies that should be becoming operational in the next two years. It will be interesting to see if this air-launched system will be able to compete with them.

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Stratolaunch completes initial taxi tests

This past weekend Stratolaunch successfully completed its second series of taxi tests, reaching a speed of 40 knots (46 miles per hour) as it moved down the runway.

[I]n December Stratolaunch capped off the year with a successful low-speed taxi test. During the taxi, the vehicle reached a top speed of 28 miles per hour (45 kilometers per hour) as it headed down the runway. Following the test, Aircraft Program Manager George Brugg stated, “This was another exciting milestone for our team and the program. Our crew was able to demonstrate ground directional control with nose gear steering, and our brake systems were exercised successfully on the runway. Our first low-speed taxi test is a very important step toward first flight.”

Last weekend, Sratolaunch kicked off 2018 with two days of additional taxi tests. Most notably, the tests included reaching the maximum taxi speed of 40 knots (46 miles per hour). According to Allen, these tests allowed the team to “verify control responses.”

There is a tiny 35 second video of this last test at the link.

The article provides a lot of details about Stratolaunch and its future, including the suggestion that the giant airplane could become the main launch platform for Orbital ATK’s Pegasus rocket. Pegasus presently has only one launch listed on its manifest, using its L1011 Stargazer airplane.

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Orbital ATK’s Pegasus launches successfully

Orbital ATK’s Pegasus rocket was successfully launched today from the bottom of its L-1011 airplane, placing in orbit a NASA constellation of eight smallsat satellites designed to study hurricanes.

he use of an eight-satellite constellation will allow for more frequent observations, allowing for a better characterization of the early stages in a cyclone’s formation and of the storm’s eventual decay. Once in orbit, the satellites will be spaced evenly around their orbital plane, achieving an angular separation of around 45 degrees from each other. The CYGNSS satellites were built by the Southwest Research Institute and the University of Michigan, while their deployer was developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation. Each satellite has a mass of 28.9 kilograms (63.7 lb), with an overall payload mass of 345.6 kilograms (761.8 lb) including the deployer. The CYGNSS mission is expected to last a minimum of two years.

This was the first Pegasus launch since 2013. I’m not sure why it has not been getting more business, but it does have another launch now scheduled for June.

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Stratolaunch to use Orbital ATK’s Pegasus rocket

The competition heats up? Vulcan Aerospace and Orbital ATK announced today that they are renewing their partnership, using Pegasus in conjunction with Stratolaunch to put satellites into orbit.

Under a multiyear “production-based partnership,” the companies said, Orbital ATK will provide “multiple” Pegasus XL air-launch rockets to be used with the Stratolaunch aircraft, which, when completed, will have the largest wingspan of any plane ever built.

With the Pegasus XL rockets, the Stratolaunch aircraft will be able to launch small satellites weighing up to 1,000 pounds, according to the firms’ joint statement released Thursday. Pegasus rockets already have done this kind of work: Orbital ATK has used them to launch satellites from the belly of its Stargazer aircraft.

This deal suggests to me that Vulcan Aerospace has a problem. It couldn’t find anyone to build a large rocket for Stratolaunch and this deal was therefore conjured up to paper over this problem. First , it appears that the reason Orbital ATK originally backed out was that they didn’t want to build the new rocket. Maybe they had engineering concerns. Maybe they were worried about cost or management. Regardless, they didn’t want to build it.

Second, using Stratolaunch with Pegasus seems pointless if the satellite weigh is still limited to only 1,000 pounds. That’s the payload capacity of Pegasus using Orbital ATK’s L-1011 Stargazer airplane. Why bother switching to Stratolaunch if the giant plane doesn’t give you any benefits?

Thus, it appears to me that what has happened is that Vulcan needed some rocket to use with Stratolaunch so that they could squelch the rising doubts about the company. This deal gives them that. It also probably gives Orbital ATK some extra cash to get them to agree to do it.

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