Minotaur rocket launches Air Force satellite from Cape Canaveral

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Orbital ATK’s Minotaur IV, making its first launch from Florida, shot from long-dormant Launch Complex 46 at 2:04 a.m. Posted Aug. 26, 2017 Orbital ATK video.

A rocket powered by remnants of a Cold War nuclear missile bolted from Cape Canaveral early Saturday with an Air Force satellite that will track threats to military spacecraft high overhead.

Orbital ATK’s Minotaur IV, making its first flight from Florida, shot from long-dormant Launch Complex 46 at 2:04 a.m., catapulted by 500,000 pounds of thrust from the first of three decommissioned Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile motors.

Within a half-hour, the five-stage, solid-fueled rocket dropped off SensorSat, a coffee table-sized satellite, about 370 miles over the equator.  

From that vantage point, the $87.5 million mission will survey a region 22,000 miles higher up known as geostationary orbit or the “GEO belt,” home to critical national security satellites providing intelligence, communications, missile warning and weather data.

“It’s sort of analogous to a surveillance radar at an airport, which goes around and around and around and around, surveilling the domain,” said Grant Stokes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory, which built the satellite.

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The 250-pound telescope will record the brightness and position of spacecraft seen as dots far above it. More capable spacecraft, including two pairs patrolling the higher orbit, will be able to take closer looks at any objects of interest.

Those could include potentially crippling space junk, but also Russian or Chinese spacecraft making aggressive maneuvers.

This is all part of the U.S. military’s renewed concern about being able to detect potential threats to its satellites in geostationary orbit,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation. “It’s increasingly concerned about other satellites or objects trying to get close to those satellites, either to do intelligence, but also to perhaps try and deny, disrupt, degrade, destroy them.”

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That’s because space assets are more ingrained in daily operations than ever before.

“There’s basically not a military operation the U.S. has today that doesn’t rely on space to some extent,” said Weeden.

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Formally called ORS-5, the mission expected to last at least three years is led by the Air Force’s decade-old Operationally Responsive Space office.

The office is charged with quickly fielding lower-cost missions that accept greater risk of failure, a much different approach from traditional programs that might take a decade or more and cost billions of dollars to develop.

The relatively low-cost SensorSat is a bridge between one of those expensive satellites, the Space Based Space Surveillance system launched in 2010, and whatever the Air Force chooses to fly next. 

Rain and the threat of lightning delayed the 78-foot Minotaur’s launch nearly three hours into a window that opened at 11:15 p.m. Friday.

When smoke and fire finally billowed from Launch Complex 46, brilliantly illuminating the night sky, it marked the end of a more than 18-year drought between missions at the site.

The state spent $6.6 million to modernize the site for the Minotaur, which could potentially return for future Air Force missions.

The rocket using retired ICBM motors — Saturday’s dated to the late 1980s — is limited to defense launches, though Orbital ATK has lobbied to make them available for commercial customers, too.

Minotaurs have now launched 26 times, including six in the version flown Saturday. Previous missions departed from Alaska, California and Virginia.

NASA plans to use Launch Complex 46 in early 2019 to test the abort system that would pull astronauts in Orion exploration capsules away from a failing rocket. 

Space Florida hopes the pad might also be a fit for a new generation of small satellite launchers being developed by several companies.

Saturday’s mission capped another busy stretch on the Eastern Range managed by the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing.

“This launch represents our third launch in just 12 days and our 14th launch this calendar year,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, Wing commander. “That represents over a quarter of all space lift missions in the entire world.”

The 15th launch is planned no earlier than Sept. 7, with a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket preparing to carry the Air Force’s X-37B space plane.

United Launch Alliance is expected to fly a classified intelligence mission from the Cape late next month. 

Contact Dean at 321-242-3668 or jdean@floridatoday.com. And follow on Twitter at @flatoday_jdeanand on Facebook at facebook.com/jamesdeanspace.

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